A top US official said on Sunday that a team of US and Libyan bomb disposal experts has secured about 5,000 surface-to-air missiles stockpiled during the regime of Moamer Kadhafi.
"We have identified, disbanded and secured more than 5,000 MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defence Systems), while thousands more have been destroyed during NATO bombing," Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs told a group of reporters.
Dozens of these missiles were detonated along the shore facing Sidi Bin Nur village, east of Tripoli, as Shapiro, on a one-day visit to Libya, witnessed the event from a nearby secured house.
A joint US and Libyan team of bomb disposal experts has been working for several months now to find these missing missiles which are seen as potential threat to civil aviation.
MANPADS are perceived as potential weapons which can be used by militant groups against commercial airliners and helicopters. These missiles have been widely used in military conflicts.
In September the European Union's counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove had said that Al-Qaeda's north African branch had acquired a stockpile of weapons in Libya, including surface-to-air missiles.
Due to the turmoil in Libya, members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have "gained access to weapons, either small arms or machine-guns, or certain surface-to-air missiles which are extremely dangerous because they pose a risk to flights over the territory," he said.
Kadhafi had a stockpile of 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles before the revolt against him broke out in February.
"We are working side by side with the NTC to reduce the threat of these loose weapons," Shapiro said after talks in Tripoli with officials from the ruling National Transitional Council, the interior and defence ministries.
There is a "serious concern about the threat posed by MANPADS... about the potential threat MANPADS can pose to civil aviation. However our efforts with the NTC to reduce these threats are already paying off."
Shapiro said contractors on the ground were still in the process of assessing how many missiles are still missing.
Libya, under Kadhafi, was reportedly the country with the biggest stock of MANPADS outside of nations that produce these weapons. The missiles, mainly SAM-7, were acquired in the 1970s and 1980s.
Shapiro said the United States has already spent six million dollars in its efforts to secure these weapons. It intends to spend up to 40 million dollars to end the threat of these "loose weapons," he added.
US specialist Skip Hartberger told AFP that the missiles detonated Sunday were found in various parts of Libya and that some of them were made in Russia and in Pakistan.
Some Russian-made SA-24 and SA 7 missiles and a few Pakistani-made anti-tank missiles were shown to reporters before they were detonated.
Meanwhile Shapiro said that Libya's new rulers are also facing a "big challenge" as they try to disarm militiamen who fought to topple Kadhafi's regime.
Interim Prime Minister Abdel Rahim al-Kib said on Thursday that disarming the former rebels who fought Kadhafi's forces is "more complex" than it appears.
Pressure to disarm the former rebels has mounted after local media reported several skirmishes between militia factions in Tripoli, with some resulting in casualties.
by Jay Deshmukh
(c) 2011 AFP
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