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Missiles missing from warehouses in Libya

TRIPOLI, Libya — Hundreds, if not thousands, of surface-to-air missiles and other weaponry have disappeared from warehouses since Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime collapsed, a weapons expert told the Tribune-Review.

“If these weapons fall into the wrong hands, all of North Africa will be a no-fly zone,” said Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director.

Bouckaert said many of the missing Russian-made missiles are of the “most advanced” type.

He showed Western journalists several of the warehouses on Wednesday.

A senior analyst at the RAND Corp., a Washington-based think tank, described the missiles as “sort of the ideal weapon for terrorists.”

Besides the surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs, the missing weaponry apparently includes anti-tank and anti-personnel landmines, C4 plastic explosives and various mortars and shells.

While SAMs are an obvious threat to military and civilian aircraft, the other missing items have been deadly when turned into car bombs, roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, by insurgents and terrorists.

Both have been used effectively against U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as against military and civilian targets worldwide.

Unmarked ammo and weapons warehouses are scattered around this capital, which rebels seized two weeks ago.

Much of the war materiel in those warehouses was moved from Libyan military bases to the nondescript depots, to protect it from NATO airstrikes during the past six months of the anti-Gadhafi rebellion.

Of three such depots examined on Wednesday by the Tribune-Review, two were unsecured and unguarded.

At the third, laborers from the now-ruling National Transitional Council hastily removed boxes filled with landmines.

The three warehouses were located near the bombed and abandoned Yarmouk military base.

The transitional council is a collection of anti-Gadhafi forces. Western governments have expressed concern that its ranks may include extremist elements.

Gadhafi’s military closely guarded the location of its weapons and ammo depots. As loyalist forces fled the capital two weeks ago, those sites were left unguarded and open to looting.

Bouckaert estimated that Gadhafi’s military possessed “as many as 20,000” SAMs before fighting erupted in February.

He said stockpiles of missiles, mortar shells and other weaponry at several warehouses in the capital were undisturbed as recently as three or four days ago.

Determining how many SAMs have disappeared is impossible. Yet a packing document found in one warehouse provides an idea.

Each two-missile crate inside the warehouse was marked with the number of crates in the original shipment; all apparently had been emptied of their contents.

“This is number 84 of 241 boxes … that means 482 missiles,” Bouckaert said, examining a consignment he said was shipped to Libya from Russia in 2004.

“It says right here, ‘Central Moscow to the Central Organization of Research (and) Industry, Libya,'” he said, reading a crate’s shipping label.

Numerous other crates in the warehouse contained different shipment numbers — suggesting they were part of a much larger supply at one time.

The Russian-made missiles are thought to range from older SA-7s to more modern and sophisticated SA-24s.

Commander Wendy Snyder, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said she was aware of the reports of missing weaponry but could not comment.

The missing missiles should alarm U.S. officials, said Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp.

“They’re sort of the ideal weapon for terrorists,” Wehrey said. “They’re portable, easy to conceal, hard to detect and relatively easy to use.”

He described them as a “mass-casualty weapon” capable of bringing down an airliner. Civilian airliners would be “particularly vulnerable,” he said.

In 2002, terrorists fired two SA-7s at an Israeli airliner in Mombasa, Kenya, but missed.

“If they had one of these SA -24s, they would not have missed,” Bouckaert said. “That plane would have gone down.”

The Russian-made SA-24 can be mounted on a vehicle or shoulder-fired with the proper triggering mechanism.

Bouckaert said it is “on the top wish-list of Iran.”

In the late 1980s the United States provided thousands of shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to insurgents in Afghanistan during the then-Soviet Union’s invasion of that country. The Stinger’s effectiveness against Russian jet fighters and helicopters turned the tide of that war.

After the Soviet withdrawal, U.S. officials spent millions of dollars buying back Stingers from Afghan jihadis.

More recently, the United States worked to block Russia’s proposed sale of SAMs to Venezuela, partly out of fear that the missiles would fall into Iranian hands, Bouckaert said.

“I am sure Iran is willing to pay a hell of a lot of money to get a couple of these missiles … so they can copy the technology,” he said.

Staff writer Jeremy Boren contributed to this report.


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