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Libya battle raises anti-aircraft threat

By Stephen Braun

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, May 15 2011 10:20 p.m. MDT

New Libyan rebel recruits in March stand next to an anti-aircraft gun after signing up for the forces against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi at a training base in Benghazi, eastern Libya.

Kevin Frayer, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The fierce combat in Libya has unleashed a once-hidden arsenal of portable anti-aircraft missiles that the government fears could easily be siphoned off to terror groups, giving rise to a potential threat to commercial aviation that the U.S. is only beginning to confront, government officials and arms experts said.

The fears are compounded by suspicions that Libyan government and opposition forces are both deploying fighters with ties to terrorists and mercenaries. With more than 20,000 missile launchers estimated in Libya, there have been unconfirmed reports that some anti-aircraft weapons have already been funneled to North African militants, but amid the vast caches wielded by both sides, there is no solid evidence yet that terrorists have them.

Troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and opposition fighters have made frequent use of Russian-built anti-aircraft weapons in the two-month-long civil war, including aging 30-year-old shoulder-fired models to advanced truck-mounted missile launchers, according to battlefront accounts and an array of combat photographs and video.

The availability of man-portable air defense systems, also known as MANPADS, across the world's conflict zones has long worried counterterrorism officials. Passenger flights have never been targeted by such missiles inside the U.S., but there have been nearly a dozen lethal strikes over the past decade in Africa and Asia.

Surveillance by aerial drones and diplomatic pressure on Libya's African neighbors to police its porous borders may be the best, if limited, actions the U.S. can take for now. U.S. military planes can fly above the range of the missiles and use electronic jamming to elude them, but detection and evasion gear are considered too bulky and expensive to install in the world's civilian aircraft fleets.

Congressional officials are pressing U.S. diplomatic and military officials for details on how they might counter the anti-aircraft missile threat in Libya, but said they have heard few specifics. Late last month, Edward R. Royce, R-Calif., chairman of a House subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade, urged Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to step up efforts to monitor and secure antiaircraft weapons — even as rebel units were reportedly receiving new shipments of armaments from abroad.

"The department should be in contact with neighboring countries to exercise vigilance in locating and securing any missiles that may be transiting out of Libya," Royce wrote in a letter to Clinton. He urged State Department officials to press rebels to keep tight control over any such missile stockpiles. The U.S., he added, should mount "an aggressive missile destruction and recovery program" once a new Libyan government is installed.

A State Department spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the department's efforts, said an internal task force has turned urgent attention to the threat. The spokesperson also said officials were in contact with the Libyan opposition and international organizations inside the country.

Even those first steps are unlikely to be effective in quickly securing the anti-aircraft missiles and launchers in use in Libya, experts said.

"The problem is that you have amorphous groups on both sides and all sorts of weaponry are coming into play from unregulated caches," said a former assistant secretary of state, Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr., who headed a Bush administration effort to recover and dispose of anti-aircraft weapons. "The primary objective is to make sure these missiles don't cross Libyan borders. In theory, that's the goal, but it's not clear it can be done in the middle of a hot war."

The U.S. general who led the early American airstrikes enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone estimated earlier this month that Gadhafi's military amassed as many as 20,000 portable missile launchers before the conflict started. That would outstrip similar caches of terror groups and militants in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years.

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