The United States and its European and NATO allies see the need for urgent action to prevent shoulder-fired missiles in Libya falling into the hands of militant groups and threatening civil aviation, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.
Andrew Shapiro, U.S. assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said Libya had an estimated 20,000 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles when the war against Muammar Qaddafi began this year.
He said thousands were thought to have been destroyed during the NATO bombing campaign, but there was an urgent need to account for the rest.
“We are very concerned about the threat that’s posed,” Shapiro told a media briefing after meetings with EU and NATO officials in Brussels. “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,” he said.
“We know that terrorist groups have expressed interest in obtaining these weapons. The possibility that these weapons might cross borders is an area of considerable concern.”
Shapiro said the U.S. State Department was planning to allocate an additional $25 million to help deal with the problem and to send more technical experts to Libya, and was seeking contributions from other countries as soon as possible.
“Our allies in Europe understand and share our urgency and are eager to work with us,” he said.
Teams in Libya were working to assess the extent of the problem and destroy stockpiles, he said.
The United Nations sees the proliferation of weapons in Libya as a major concern and says its new rulers need to establish a proper police force and army to replace hundreds of militias made of up of mainly volunteers.
Libya’s southern neighbor Niger has called the risk of cross-border arms trafficking “explosive.” Algeria, which shares a border with Libya, says it is worried that al-Qaeda militants will exploit disorder in the country to acquire weapons.
Britain said on Monday that British military experts had helped disarm a number of surface-to-air-missiles in Libya and identified a number of places in the North African country where the weapons may be located.
NATO expressed concern earlier this month about reports that thousands of surface-to-air missiles had gone missing in Libya, and said it was the responsibility of the new authorities there to ensure weapons stocks were properly controlled.
Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine has reported that the head of NATO’s military committee, Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, told German lawmakers in a confidential briefing last week NATO had lost track of 10,000 surface-to-air missiles that had been in Libyan army hands.