Libyans take weapons from Moammar Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli last month. There are concerns that looted weapons could contribute to instability in Libya as the country tries to establish a new government.
Libyans take weapons from Moammar Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli last month. There are concerns that looted weapons could contribute to instability in Libya as the country tries to establish a new government. Sean Carberry/NPR
In Libya, there's growing concern over the vast arsenals of weapons that have flooded on to the streets since Moammar Gadhafi's ouster. Warehouses of surface-to-air missiles, mortars and anti-tank mines have been looted.
Soon after the rebels overran the headquarters of Gadhafi's much-feared Khamis Brigade on the south side of Tripoli, rebels and ordinary citizens scavenged through a bombed-out warehouse on the base.
Green wooden crates of mortar shells are stacked more than 10 feet high. There are boxes full of .50-caliber anti-aircraft rounds. Other coffin-sized crates have been ripped open and are empty, except for some shredded packing material. Shipping orders on these boxes indicate they were sent from the Russian Federation to Libya in 2006.
"The unsecured weapons in this country are an extreme problem," says Fred Abrahams of Human Rights Watch. He has been looking into the issue of uncontrolled weapons stockpiles in Libya since the beginning of the uprising in February.
"Moammar Gadhafi had a vast arsenal, and these days many of the warehouses, many of the bunkers have been looted," he says.
Rebels And Civilians Take Weapons
The rebels used the "liberated" weapon stockpiles of Gadhafi to arm themselves as they advanced on the capital, but ordinary citizens have also been free to take whatever they want.
U.S. military officials in the region have expressed concern that surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists.
Containing these munitions has been complicated by the fact that after the NATO bombing campaign started in March, the Gadhafi regime moved many of them out of military bases.
Large mortar shells sit unguarded, and boxes that once held anti-aircraft missiles and other heavy weapons are strewn about arms depots around Tripoli. Rebels say they've taken some ammunition, but U.S. officials and others express fears the weapons could fall into the wrong hands.
Large mortar shells sit unguarded, and boxes that once held anti-aircraft missiles and other heavy weapons are strewn about arms depots around Tripoli. Rebels say they've taken some ammunition, but U.S. officials and others express fears the weapons could fall into the wrong hands. Ben Hubbard/AP
Weapons were being stored in residential neighborhoods, in office buildings and factories.
Abrahams concedes that this has made finding them more difficult, but still, he says, the rebels' transitional government hasn't made weapons containment a high enough priority.
"In Libya's east, we saw the vast arsenals that were left unguarded when the government fell. So we knew that they were in the west. We knew they were in Tripoli. We knew they were in other cities. And we're finding them. Up to two weeks after Tripoli fell, we are still finding places with large, large amounts of weapons. Yesterday, we found a place with over 100,000 land mines," Abrahams says.
Officials with the transitional government say they are trying to deal with the problem. But they say this is just one more of the problematic legacies left behind by Gadhafi.
There is an effort under way to register all the Kalashnikov assault rifles that have recently ended up on the streets.
At rebel checkpoints throughout Tripoli, every young man holds an AK-47.
At a roadblock in the Souk al-Juma neighborhood, Hisham Kalif explained that everyone's new ID card also contains the serial number of their gun.
"Come here, Mohamed," Kalif asks of a man standing nearby. "He's got a Kalashnikov there. It's got the number there. So, when they call him, like, this is the number of his Kalashnikov. When the time comes [and] government [says] we need to collect all Kalashnikovs — so we handle them."
The new interior minister says that eventually, all armed fighters will be required to either hand in their guns or join a unified national army.
Abrahams at Human Rights Watch says the former rebels have responded quickly to securing munitions warehouses once they've been found. But he says this is often too late.
"Placing a guard at an empty facility where we find only the boxes of surface-to-air missiles doesn't do much at this point," says Abrahams. "Unfortunately, the damage is done."
If Gadhafi or some other leader does launch an insurgency in Libya, Abrahams warns that these weapons could be used to destabilize the new country.