Washington: The commander of a powerful Libyan militia has claimed that protesters, who have been calling for dismantling the country’s militias, stole “a large number” of shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles from a one of its bases, as they overran the compound during a demonstration.
Ismail Salabi, the commander of Rafallah al-Sahati, a powerful Islamist militia in Benghazi, said in an interview that protesters, aided by other government-allied militias, had overrun four militia bases, including Rafallah al-Sahati, and stole missiles, used by fighters to “hit airplanes” and known to the U.S. intelligence community as MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems) along with 2,000 semiautomatic rifles and ammunition, amid a firefight last week.
According to the Washington Post, Saleh Jouda, a member of Libya’s elected General National Congress and the deputy head of national security, said the government did not have any information about stolen weapons aside from “between 1,000 and 2,000 guns.” He said the government had set up new security checkpoints to track down the weapons.
The clashes at Rafallah al-Sahati’s base followed a mass protest on Friday last week, during which thousands of Libyans marched through Benghazi demanding the establishment of a strong national army and the dissolution of the hundreds of militias that have run Libya’s streets in the security vacuum since Moammar Gaddafi’s fall last year, the paper said.
According to the paper, it was unclear whose hands the weapons had fallen into. But Salabi suggested that clashes had broken out between rival militias over the looting of Rafallah al-Sahati’s weapons.
“Most of the clashes were over who was going to get control of the weapons,” he said.
A senior Obama administration official said earlier this month that U.S. intelligence estimates that 100 to 1,000 MANPADS are still unaccounted for in Libya, despite U.S. efforts to destroy them, the News Agencies said.
Libya’s militias consist largely of former rebels who in some cases have amassed large quantities of heavy weapons, stolen from Gaddafi’s arsenals over the course of Libya’s eight-month revolution. The country’s weak central government has yet to develop a clear plan to collect those weapons, it added.