Fears that Libya's portable anti-aircraft weapons may have walked out of the country amid the chaos of the country's civil war may not have been realized, a top State Department official said Monday.
"Thus far, we have not seen any firm evidence that they have left the country, but we are still obviously very concerned about it," Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro, whose bureau has overseen efforts to track down and secure or destroy those weapons, told reporters.
A human rights activist who documented the looting of Libyan weapons depots, however, said the State Department was "putting lipstick on a pig" by saying there was no hard proof missiles had left Libya.
The Gadhafi regime was believed to have stockpiled up to 20,000 of the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons known as MANPADs since the 1970s. Some of the weapons have heat-seeking capabilities and could be used to take down a commercial airliner. After this year's NATO-led bombing campaign many, perhaps thousands, were destroyed and others got loose, sparking fears that they could fall into the hands of terrorists.
The State Department has been working with Libyan authorities to secure the weapons and destroy any that are not needed for the country's defense. The U.S. has already invested millions of dollars in the effort. Shapiro visited Libya earlier this month, where he said that so far the State Dept. has secured nearly 5,000 of the weapons.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, warned of the problem after a trip to Libya earlier this year. On a return trip to Libya he took pictures of pickup truckloads of the missiles being carted off.
"I myself could have removed several hundred if I wanted to, and people can literally drive up with pickup trucks or even 18 wheelers and take away whatever they want," said Bouckaert at the time. "Every time I arrive at one of these weapons facilities, the first thing we notice going missing is the surface-to-air missiles."
On Monday, Bouckaert said the State Department's "inaction . . . during much of the Libya conflict has helped cause the largest proliferation every of surface-to-air missiles. Even by the State Department's own count, thousands of the dangerous missiles remain missing."
"The State Department can put lipstick on a pig," said Bouckaert, "but I am sure they remain worried where the missiles have gone. The illicit weapons trade isn't exactly known for its transparent dealings."
In October, the Washington Post reported that Egyptian officials said some of the missiles had been intercepted in Egypt headed toward the border with the Gaza strip and Israel. At the time, a State Department spokesperson told ABC News that the U.S. "commend[s] Egyptian authorities" for seizing the missiles and other arms.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, pushed back on the Washington Post report.
"We have only a few indications of weapons from Libya leaking into neighboring states," the official told ABC News.
The official said that the missiles are likely still within Libya, but that the militias who are holding them may be keeping them as bargaining chips so they'll be included "in the post-Gadhafi political process."
"This jockeying probably has helped keep these weapons inside Libya, albeit outside the control of Libyan authorities," said the official.
Thousands Destroyed by NATO?
The State Department believes many thousands more may have been destroyed when NATO planes bombed Gadhafi's weapons depots. Their experts are now going to those sites to try and catalogue how many were there. It's also unclear how many Gadhafi may have used or how many others may no longer be operational after years in storage.
The rest are believed to be in the hands of the militias who looted some of the weapons caches during and after the war.
"The key now is convincing those who hold onto these weapons to turn them in and take them out of circulation. And we were working with the Libyan authorities on the best way to do that," Shapiro told reporters, adding that they are also in touch with the militias.
The State Department Monday released a report entitled "To Walk the Earth in Safety" on its efforts to destroy and clear conventional weapons like MANPADs and land mines around the world.