Friday, October 28, 2011

Hunt underway for Libyan weapons stores

A month after U.S. officials told ABC News they were moving quickly to secure unguarded weapons in Libya, human rights investigators have found a huge cache of unprotected weapons, including bombs, tank shells and dozens of surface-to-air missiles, in the city of Sirte.

"Anybody want a surface-to-air missile?" asks Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, in a video shot Sunday in near where Moammar Gadhafi and his son Mutassim made their last stand. Though the U.S. is rushing more and more specialists to Libya in a race to find the massive stores of weapons that have gone missing since the start of the Libyan uprising, Bouckaert beat them to Sirte.

Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro told ABC News that there was "obviously" a race to find the weapons before they fall into the hands of terrorists, "and that's why we're deploying people as quickly as we possibly can." Shapiro said the U.S. plans to increase its presence on the ground from 10 teams of weapons specialists, or less than 35 people total, to 50 teams.

"We believe that based on our examination of the numerous sites that thousands of missiles were actually destroyed during the NATO bombing campaign," said Shapiro, "and [that another] thousand missiles have been disabled or damaged."

Libyans alerted by the U.S. reached the Sirte site found by Human Rights Watch on Thursday, according to Shapiro, and moved the missiles there "to a more secure location." Shapiro denied that the Libyans had gone to the site because ABC News planned to report on it, but said the U.S. had "immediately acted" on information provided by Human Rights Watch. He said it would have been difficult to get to Sirte earlier because there was still fighting in the city last week.

In September, Shapiro said the U.S. was "making great progress" in accounting for the Gadhafi regime's missing munitions, but that the U.S. did not have a clear picture of how many missiles it was attempting to track down. Just last week, during a visit to Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "I am pleased to announce that we are going to put even more money into helping Libya secure and destroy dangerous stockpiles of weapons."

It would take only one of the shoulder-fired, heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles, which have a range of two miles, to bring down a commercial aircraft. On Sunday, Bouckaert found dozens of Russian SA-7 missiles scattered across the ground in Sirte, along with empty crates.


US flying drones out of Ethiopia


The US military has begun flying drone aircraft from a base in Ethiopia, as part of its fight against Islamist militants in neighbouring Somalia.

US officials have confirmed to the BBC that the base, in the southern city of Arba Minch, is now operational.

But they stressed that the remotely-piloted drones were being used only for surveillance, and not for air strikes.

It is part of a growing counter-terrorism presence in the region as the US pursues groups with al-Qaeda links.

The US military has reportedly spent millions of dollars upgrading the remote, civilian airport - from which Reaper drones are now being flown.

The remotely-piloted aircraft can be equipped with missiles and satellite guided bombs.

But officials have told the BBC the drones are flying unarmed because their use is considered sensitive by Ethiopia's government.

Their role is surveillance of the al-Shabab militant group - based in Somalia, and already the focus of drone missions flown from other bases in the region.


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