(Tripoli) – The National Transitional Council (NTC), the de facto authority that controls most of Libya, should take immediate steps to secure and guard weapons storage facilities in the areas under its control, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch visits to several unguarded storage facilities in and around Tripoli since September 6, 2011, raised strong concerns about the rampant looting of powerful weapons.
Human Rights Watch observed the first guards posted to watch over them late on September 7, but a visit on September 9 suggested that the sites were not yet fully secured.
“It is disturbing that, two weeks after taking control of Tripoli and western Libya, the transitional authorities have yet to secure some of the country’s most sensitive weapons storage facilities,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, who visited many of the sites. “Thousands of weapons such as surface-to-air and antitank missiles are missing, and many facilities are being plundered.”
The NTC’s failure to guard and secure these weapons storage facilities poses threats to both the Libyan people and the international community, Human Rights Watch said. The vast stocks of explosive weapons such as mines, mortars, and artillery and tank shells could be easily converted into potent car bombs and other explosive devices, posing a threat to civilians. There is also a threat that looted weapons could be transferred to insurgent groups and al-Qaeda affiliates that operate on the territory of some of Libya’s neighbors and that have a record of targeting civilians.
In the months before NTC forces took control of Tripoli, forces loyal to Mu'ammar Gaddafi relocated much weaponry to non-military sites such as buildings of private companies and the farms of Gaddafi loyalists, to protect them from NATO airstrikes. Many of these makeshift storage facilities are close to military bases, such as that of the elite 32nd Khamis Brigade, commanded by Gaddafi’s son Khamis.
Among the unsecured weapons storage facilities that Human Rights Watch visited in the vicinity of a Khamis Brigade base in the Salahadin neighborhood of Tripoli is a farm compound holding approximately 15,000 antipersonnel mines and 500 antivehicle mines. A nearby storage facility housed more than 100,000 antipersonnel and antivehicle mines, as well as large stocks of mortars, artillery, and tank shells; and an unfinished schoolbook-printing facility contained large stocks of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), antitank guided missiles, mortars, tank shells, artillery shells, and other types of ammunition.
Evidence of looting at the schoolbook-printing facility included an empty shipping container that apparently had held a SA-24 Grinch, an advanced Russian surface-to-air missile (SAM) that has the capacity to target airplanes flying at up to 11,000 feet. Human Rights Watch found shipping documents dated December 2004 in the container indicating that Russia had shipped to Libya 482 SA-24s, which can either be vehicle-mounted or man-carried. Earlier generation SA-7 SAMs as well as anti-tank guided missiles were apparently looted from this facility.
During repeated visits to the facility between September 6 and 8, Human Rights Watch researchers spoke with NTC officials who acknowledged that the munitions had disappeared since pro-Gaddafi forces had been routed from the capital. The researchers also saw NTC fighters and even people who appeared to be private individuals cart munitions away, without any visible controls.
The NTC has no apparent use for surface-to-air missiles in the current conflict since pro-Gaddafi forces have not used aircraft or helicopters for months.
One of the NTC commanders removing munitions from the schoolbook-printing facility told Human Rights Watch that since the fall of Tripoli he had repeatedly come to the facility to transport munitions to rebel bases and to the front lines at Bani Walid and Sirte, where Gaddafi loyalists remain entrenched. He confirmed that the surface-to-air missiles had been there when he first visited the site, and did not know who had removed them.
“Whenever we have visited weapons facilities in rebel-controlled areas during the past six months, we found that surface-to-air missiles were among the first items missing,” Bouckaert said. “Since the missiles do not seem to have any use to the NTC forces in the current conflict, it is alarming that these weapons, which are capable of shooting down an airliner, are disappearing.”
Human Rights Watch calls upon the NTC to deploy guards immediately at all known weapons depots. The NTC should register all arms they contain, to prevent their unauthorized removal and to keep them from reaching individuals or groups who have demonstrated a disrespect for the principles of humanitarian law, especially the duty at all times not to target civilians.
Human Rights Watch also urged the United Nations and the international community to accelerate the deployment of its experts on unexploded ordnance (UXO) and weapons control to assist the NTC in securing weapons facilities.
“In securing weapons, time is of the essence,” Bouckaert said. “Many dangerous arms have already disappeared because of the failure to protect stockpiles. More must be done immediately to secure the remaining stocks.”