Libyans launch grassroots efforts to stop deadly weapons flow

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 1, 2011 

TRIPOLI, Libya — Alarmed at the deadly arsenals piling up in ordinary Libyan neighborhoods, self-appointed community leaders in Tripoli have begun issuing their own gun licenses and, in some cases, conducting raids to retrieve land mines and rockets stored in private homes.

Qatar and other nations flooded Libya with arms during revolutionary forces' six-month struggle to overthrow longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi. And when the NATO-backed former rebels finally toppled the regime just over a month ago, weapons depots in newly liberated territories were left unguarded, flung open for anyone in the market for anti-aircraft guns, heat-seeking rockets and mortar rounds.

Grassroots initiatives to register or confiscate arms from civilians and former rebels constitute the only real push to track the weapons because the National Transitional Council, the de facto ruling authority, is already overstretched with infighting over other security and political affairs.

The proliferation of loose weapons already has led to a spike in accidental civilian deaths and injuries, medical workers and human rights activists say. And many Libyan community activists are worried that, if left unchecked, the readily available arms could escalate a simmering power struggle between fighters from western cities and natives of the capital.

"After the fall of the regime, the weapons are everywhere," said Sheikh Abdul Razak Msherab, a cleric whose Tripoli mosque has issued hundreds of unofficial gun permits to local residents in the past month. "The arms are spreading like crazy and some fighters want to be in charge, or some tribes want to be in charge, so it's very worrying. We had to do something."

Similar efforts are cropping up in the eastern part of the country. The Benghazi-based Libyan Charity Organization, for example, has plans to transform its kitchens — where teenage volunteers prepare more than 10,000 meals a day for front-line fighters — into receiving centers for a new cash-for-guns program once the battlefields have quieted.

"We have no government and we can't just leave guns in the streets, so what else can we do? We want a peaceful Benghazi," said Aiman Gadir, the prominent businessman who founded the group. "We're going to take all the weapons from people and turn them over to the local council."

In Tripoli, neighborhood committees and religious groups in several districts are asking — and, at times, forcing — residents to register their weapons in exchange for homemade plastic badges that serve as gun permits at checkpoints set up by local men or former rebels who've returned from fighting.

Sometimes the groups act in coordination with semi-official military councils, but more often the efforts are overseen by individual community figures or militia commanders acting on requests from residents who are fed up with the sound of random shooting and fatal accidents involving children who stumble upon caches.

"We're going to try to negotiate and take the weapons peacefully, but if they don't give them up, we'll just break into houses and confiscate them," said Abdel Raouf Kara, the leader of a revolutionary brigade from the hard-hit neighborhood of Suq al Jumaa.

Kara produced a neatly organized ledger with more than 250 local residents' names, and the serial numbers and types of weapons they had in their possession. They were allowed to keep light weapons such as handguns and hunting rifles, he said, but anything heavier would be confiscated and dispatched to revolutionary forces fighting Gadhafi loyalists in the last regime strongholds of Bani Walid and Sirte.

"Most people just come voluntarily because they know we'll find out what they have, anyway," Kara said. "One guy showed up with a heat-seeking rocket."

Leaders of the National Transitional Council are preoccupied with the more long-term weapons issue, namely how to disarm thousands of irregular soldiers and either reintegrate them into civilian life or include them in a future national army once Libya is fully under control.

This weekend, the council met with top militia commanders and pledged a Cabinet-level position, tentatively called the "martyrs ministry," to give fighters and their families a voice in the caretaker government, according to several politicians involved in the talks. They're promising incentives such as psychological counseling, college scholarships and job promotions to persuade the former rebels to give up their guns.

"We're going to have a rehabilitation program to get these youngsters back to civilian life," said Mohamed Sayeh, a Tripoli-based member of the transitional council. "They've become professional fighters, professional killers, and we want them back now, back to normal."

Even if those plans come to fruition, there are still countless thousands of weapons floating around the country, typically in the hands of civilians with little or no experience in using or storing them. Community leaders said they couldn't afford to wait for a streamlined response from the national council.

Nearly every neighborhood has stories of bystanders struck by celebratory gunfire or of unexploded ordnance carted off by looters and souvenir seekers who didn't realize the dangers. For now, it's up to local authority figures to police the weapons flow in their districts, leaving room for disputes and abuses given Libya's fractious tribal and regional politics.

"There's no real authority, so if we know somebody has heavy weapons, we just go and seize them," said Ali Hassan Khushan, an aide to Msherab, the cleric.

Khushan, who sported a pistol in both pockets of his camouflage pants one recent day, said the weapons flow is particularly troubling in his district along Nasser Street because of its close proximity to Bab al Aziziyah, Gadhafi's heavily fortified former compound where loose weapons abounded.

Residents made off with so many arms in the chaos of the regime's collapse that Khushan estimates volunteers have found only half of the arms hidden in closets and under beds at neighbors' homes. When people balk at handing over their arms, volunteers invoke the cautionary tale of a 14-year-old local boy who was killed this month in an accidental shooting. Dozens of others have been wounded.

"The people took what they could because there were no checkpoints and no one to stop them," Khushan said. "One time, we went to a home and found a guy with a bunch of mines."

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