Libya’s guns free-for-all fuels region’s turmoil
TRIPOLI // At the heart of the Libyan capital, the open-air Fish Market was once a place where residents went to buy everything from meat and seafood to clothes and pets.
Now it’s Tripoli’s biggest arms market, with tables displaying pistols and assault rifles. Ask a vendor, and he can pull out bigger machine guns to sell for thousands of dollars.
Libya, where hundreds of militias hold sway and the central government is virtually powerless, is awash in millions of weapons with no control over their trafficking. The arms free-for-all fuels not only Libya’s instability but also stokes conflicts around the region as guns are smuggled through the country’s wide-open borders to militants fighting in insurgencies and wars stretching from Syria to West Africa.
The lack of control is at times stunning. Last month, militia fighters stole a planeload of weapons sent by Russia for Libya’s military when it stopped to refuel at Tripoli International Airport on route to a base in the south. The fighters surrounded the plane on the tarmac and looted the shipment of automatic weapons and ammunition, said Hashim Bishr.
In a further indignity, the fighters belonged to a militia officially assigned by the government to protect the airport.
Only a few weeks earlier, another militia seized a weapons’ shipment that landed at Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport meant for the military’s 1st Battalion, Mr Bishr said. Among the weapons were heavy anti-aircraft guns, which are a pervasive weapon among the militias and are usually mounted on the back of pickup trucks.
The weapons chaos has alarmed Europe and the United States. At a conference in Rome this month, Western and Arab diplomats pressed Libyan officials to reach some political consensus so the international community can help the government collect weapons and rebuild the military and police.
The problem is that Europe and the US simply don’t know who to talk to in Libya, a Western diplomat in Tripoli said.
“It’s about whether they are capable of receiving the help,” he said.
He pointed to an international effort to build storage houses in which to collect weapons in the western Libyan town of Gharyan. That project has stumbled, he said, because of the problem of determining “who is in charge and whom we work with”.
The 42-year rule of the dictator Muammar Qaddafi left the country without solid political institutions. Since his fall and death in the 2011 civil war, the instability has only spiralled. The rebel brigades that formed to fight him have turned into powerful militias, many based on tribe, region, city or even neighbourhood, that often battle each other as they carve out zones of control. Some have hardline Islamist or even Al Qaeda-inspired ideologies.
The militias outgun the military and police, which were shattered in the civil war.
Several officials said the government does not know how many weapons there are in Libya, a country of 6 million people. Saleh Jaweida, a member of parliament on the National Security Committee, said that all figures are speculation but that a plausible estimate is between 10-15 million light weapons – up to an assault rifle – and not counting heavier calibre weapons or armour.
Many of the arms came from the arsenals of the Qaddafi-era military and police, which were looted during the civil war and after the collapse of his rule. Another source is the large amount of weapons shipped to the rebels during the eight-month uprising, largely from Gulf Arab nations.
The Fish Market is one main source in Tripoli – located only steps from the capital’s historic Red Castle, where Qaddafi delivered a speech from the ramparts during the 2011 uprising, threatening to open his arsenal to the public and turn Libya into “a red fire”.
Smuggling abroad is also big business. Abdel-Basit Haroun, a former top intelligence official, said tribes and militias that control the eastern, western, and southern borders are engaged in arms smuggling.
A 97-page report released in March by United Nations Panel of Experts said weapons that originated in Libya were found in 14 countries, often reaching militant groups. The report said smuggling is mainly from Libyan militias’ arsenals.
Sophisticated man-portable, ground-to-air rocket systems, known as Manpads, have reached four conflict zones, including Chad and Mali.
“Fears that terrorist groups would acquire these weapons have materialised,” the report said.
A Manpad that militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula used to shoot down an Egyptian military helicopter this year originated in Libya, it said.
Another major destination for Libya’s weapons is Syria. The report said investigators found that Qatar has been using its air force flights to transport weapons from Libya and eventually to Turkey, from where they are passed to rebels in Syria. The report said Russian-made weapons bought in 2000 by Qaddafi’s regime were found in the hands of Islamist rebels in Syria.
“In a very real sense, Libya is exporting its insecurity to surrounding countries,” wrote one of the authors of the report, Brian Katulis, a senior Fellow at the Centre for American Progress.
Under the Libyan government’s Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme, some 160,000 militiamen have been registered under the interior ministry’s Warriors Affairs Agency. A small portion of them have given up their weapons and demobilised. But most have been assigned security tasks by the government in an attempt to rope militias under state aegis.
Abdul Rahman Al Ageli, a security coordinator in the prime minister’s office, said the government is “effectively drowning” and that authorities have “not demonstrated any tangible vision” for demobilising and disarming militias.
* Associated Press