Libya a nation awash with guns

Out-of-control militia groups hold sway as the government is powerless and world groups cannot decide who they should be dealing with

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 4:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 4:48am


The open-air fish market was once where residents went to buy everything from meat and seafood to clothe s and pets. Now it is Tripoli's biggest arms market, with tables displaying pistols and assault rifles.

Libya's central government is virtually powerless and the nation is awash in millions of weapons with no control over their trafficking. This not only harms Libya's stability but also stokes regional conflict as guns are smuggled to wars stretching from Syria to West Africa.

Last month, militia fighters stole a plane-load of weapons sent by Russia for Libya's military when it stopped to refuel at Tripoli airport on the way to a base in the south.

Only a few weeks earlier, another militia seized a weapons shipment meant for the military. Among the armaments were heavy anti-aircraft guns, which are popular with militias and are usually mounted on the backs of small 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 allow the international community to help collect weapons and rebuild the military.

The problem was that Europe and the US simply did not know who to talk to in Libya, a Western diplomat said.

"It's about whether they are capable of receiving the help," he said, pointing to an international effort to build storage houses in which to collect weapons in the western Libyan town of Gharyan.

That project had stumbled, he said, because of the problem of determining "who is in charge and whom we work with".

Libya's militias outgun the military and police, which were shattered in the civil war.

The government has to hire militias to take up security duties at airports, sea ports, hospitals and government buildings.

Politicians are themselves deeply divided, broadly into an Islamist-led and a rival bloc, each backed by militias, turning politics into an armed conflict. Militias, for example, have besieged parliament to force passage of particular laws and once briefly kidnapped a prime minister.

Highlighting the divisions, Libya sent two separate delegations to the Rome conference, one headed by then-prime minister Ali Zidan, the other by his rival, Islamist parliament chief Nouri Abu-Sahmain. Soon after the conference, legislators led by Islamists removed Zidan in a no-confidence vote.

Several officials said that the government did not know how many weapons there were in the country of six million people.

Saleh Jaweida, a member on parliament's national security committee, said that a plausible estimate was between 10 million to 15 million light weapons.

There is also a strong market for weapons for personal protection. Nearly every household is believed to have at least one gun, but usually it is several.

Smuggling abroad is also big business. Abdel-Basit Haroun, a former top intelligence official, said tribes and militias that controlled the eastern, western, and southern borders were engaged in arms smuggling.

A report released in March by a UN panel of experts said weapons that originated in Libya were found in 14 countries, often reaching militant groups. The report said smuggling was mainly from Libyan militias' arsenals.

It said sophisticated ground-to-air missile systems had reached conflict zones, including Chad and Mali.

Abdul Rahman AlAgeli, a security co-ordinator in the prime minister's office, said the government was "effectively drowning" and that authorities had "not demonstrated any tangible vision" for demobilising and disarming militias.