Saturday, October 15, 2011

US Team Searches for Missiles

US, allies see urgent need for action on Libya missiles


BRUSSELS: The United States and its EU and Nato allies see a need for urgent action to prevent shoulder-fired missiles in Libya falling into the hands of militant groups, a senior US official said on Friday.

“We are very concerned about the threat that’s posed,” Andrew Shapiro, US assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, told a news briefing after meetings with EU and Nato officials in Brussels.

Shapiro said he had no estimate as to how many of the estimated 20,000 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that had been in Libya were unaccounted for since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, but added: “In the wrong hands these systems could pose a potential threat to civil aviation.”
“There was broad consensus about the urgency of this threat and the need to take urgent action to address it.”

By Mary Beth Sheridan, Published: October 13

TRIPOLI — The United States is planning to dispatch dozens of former military personnel to Libya to help track down and destroy surface-to-air missiles from Moammar Gaddafi’s stockpiles that U.S. officials worry could be used by terrorists to take down passenger jets.

The weapons experts are part of a rapidly expanding $30 million program to secure Libya’s conventional weapons in the wake of the most violent conflict to occur in the Arab Spring, according to State Department officials who provided new details of the effort.

As the U.S. Embassy reopened in Libya, the hunt is on for the missiles and rockets that Gaddafi's fleeing forces left behind. A non-profit group is in charge of making sure they don't end up in the wrong hands.

Fourteen contractors with military backgrounds have been sent to help Libyan officials, and the U.S. government is looking at sending dozens more. Thousands of pamphlets in Arabic, English and French will be delivered to neighboring countries so border guards can recognize the heat-seeking missiles, the officials said. It could grow to become one of the three biggest U.S. weapons-retrieval program in the world, along with those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have not seen any . . . attacks with loose missiles coming out of Libya yet,” said Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs. But, he added, “We’re working as assiduously as we can to address the threat. It only takes one to make a real difference.”

Gaddafi was one of the world’s top purchasers of the shoulder-fired missiles, buying about 20,000 in the 1970s and 1980s, according to U.S. estimates. While the weapons are of limited effectiveness against modern military aircraft, the still pose a threat to commercial passenger planes.

Thousands of the missiles were destroyed in NATO bomb attacks on arms depots during the war and hundreds have been recovered by the new government. But an unknown number were carted off by Libyan rebel groups and civilians who swarmed into unguarded storage areas after Gaddafi’s forces were defeated.

Already, several missiles have beenintercepted on the desert road from Libya to Egypt, according to Egyptian officials. Tunisia’s prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, said in a recent interview he was so worried about smuggled Libyan weapons that he planned to ask Washington to provide helicopters for border surveillance.

Unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has no troops in Libya who can secure the weapons. President Obama has refused to deploy U.S. military forces to Libya to avoid raising hackles both in the Middle East and in the U.S. Congress. Some lawmakers — notably House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) — have called for using U.S. soldiers to secure the shoulder-fired missiles and Libya’s chemical weapons stocks.

But that task is in the hands of an overstretched Libyan transitional government, which has shown willingness but limited capacity.

“We need help,” Atia al-Mansouri, a military consultant to the governing Transitional National Council, said Thursday. Various rebel groups had hauled away the weapons, he said, “and they are a little more powerful than the army.”

Shoulder-fired missiles have emerged as a global threat, with more than 40 civilian aircraft hit by the weapons since the 1970s. After al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists tried to shoot down an airliner in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002, the U.S. government stepped up its efforts to track and dismantle the missiles, known technically as MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems).

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