Western powers are in danger of underestimating the regional effects of Libya's political instability, according to Hugh Robertson, the British Foreign Office minister responsible for the Middle East and North Africa.
Robertson told the Foreign Affairs Committee that there are around 400 arms dumps in Libya, 75% of which are not under government control. He also said the British, French and US governments have underestimated the capability of the region's militant groups to exploit the political chaos.
The level of state security in Libya has dramatically worsened in the last month, as rising militia violence and declining state power edge the country ever closer to all-out anarchy. Deputy Intelligence Chief Mustafa Noah was abducted from Tripoli International Airport on Nov. 17 before being freed following the intervention of the Zintan Shura Council.
Noah's abduction was the highest-level attack on a government official since the kidnapping of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan by the Libyan Revolutionaries Joint Operations Room on Oct. 10. Zeidan was also released within 24 hours.
Violence centered in Tripoli's Ghargour district last weekend resulted in the deaths of at least 45 people and a further 460 wounded after Misrata militias opened fire on protesters demanding the withdrawal of their forces from the capital. The resulting clashes between rival militias were the worst since the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.
Evidence collected by Human Rights Watch from Tripoli's Abu Salim and Zawiya Street hospitals suggests the majority of casualties were caused by heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
"Libyan citizens have paid with their lives for the reckless acts of unaccountable militias," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Libya needs security forces who don't stand by as militias kill unarmed protesters."
Robertson said that huge quantities of arms were now unsecured in Libya and were potentially available to well-resourced regional militant organizations.
"You add to that the ability of insurgents, through kidnap for ransom and other things, to raise sums of money like 40 million pounds ($64 million), and in a market that is oversupplied, where there is a lot of kit [military equipment] available, you can absolutely see the dangers," he told the committee.
The minister compared the danger posed by militant groups in the wider Sahel region to armed groups that fought in the Bosnian war. British government officials said poor border security in Libya and North Africa is making effective monitoring of militant groups difficult.
Simon Shercliff, head of the Foreign Office's Counter-Terrorism Department, said, "The size of the problem is immense. There are huge desertified borders, often not actually demarcated in any sensible way, and, as we mentioned earlier, ancient trade routes, used either for licit or illicit reasons, criss-cross the whole region."
Foreign Office officials said that the British government is lobbying for cooperation between North African states on border-security issues, and has a permanent border-security adviser stationed in Libya.
A regional border-security conference was held in Rabat last week that resulted in the announcement of plans to establish a training facility in Morocco. Algerian representatives did not attend the conference due to diplomatic tensions between the two countries.
Algeria instead independently announced that it would built 80 new outposts, each manned with 40 guards, along its long Saharan border with Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Tunisia and Libya.
Misratan militias based in Tripoli, including the al-Nusour brigade, which is widely held responsible for the recent spike in violence, have now withdrawn from bases in the capital in line with orders received from Misrata. Tripoli and Misrata regional leaders are believed to be engaged in regular meetings with the aim of defusing the tense political situation.
Instability is having significant effects on the operations of businesses and international oil companies in Libya, which has proven reserves of almost 48 billion barrels of oil — the largest in Africa.
National oil production has sunk to levels well below an average of 1.5 million barrels per day, and even below the levels expected by some international companies on their sites. The closing of oil fields, terminals and ports by militias (along with coordinated labor action in some areas) has led investors and oil companies to shrink their operations and in some cases, look to exit the country.
The majority of the country's oil terminals, which are located in the east around the Sirte basin, remain closed. However, the Mellitah export terminal and associated Greenstream pipeline, which runs from Western Libya to Italy, reopened Nov. 18 after a labor dispute with Amazigh workers ended in a negotiated settlement.
Separatist militia leader Ibrahim al-Jathran, who is responsible for many of the closures, this month announced the establishment of his own oil company based in the country's east and outside the authority of the central Tripoli administration. Libya's oil exports primarily go to Europe, with roughly 10% shipped to China.
Oil companies said that both security concerns for their staff resulting from a lack of state control and the effect the closures are having on production are fueling their highly cautious positions toward Libya.
The overwhelming majority of the Libyan government's revenue comes from oil production and exportation.
Tripoli is currently experiencing its first general strike in recent memory as the majority of the public sector and private businesses close and only pharmacies, hospitals and gas stations remain open.
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