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22nd Jan 2022

EU arms to Libya: fresh details emerge

  • Container ship at Maltese port. Malta has a reputation as a transit-hub for arms traders (Photo: albir)

Malta has denied any responsibility for a massive shipment of Italian-made guns to Libya that went through its port in 2009. Meanwhile, video footage on YouTube appears to show Belgian-made weapons currently being used by Gaddafi mercenaries.

The Maltese foreign ministry has rejected EU data saying that it exported €79.7 million worth of "smooth-bore weapons with a calibre of less than 20mm, other arms and automatic weapons with a calibre of 12.7 mm (calibre 0.50 inches) or less and accessories" to Libya two years ago.

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The Maltese foreign ministry in an official statement on Tuesday (22 February) said the guns originated in Italy and "as far as customs can confirm, they did not touch dry land [in Malta]."

It added: "The end user was the government of Libya as confirmed by the Italian embassy there. There were no sanctions presently imposed on Libya. On the basis of the above, authorisation for transit was issued while customs allowed transit."

A Maltese contact said the EU document naming Malta as the exporter is "damaging Malta's reputation." He added that the small island has been a transit hub for EU exports to north Africa "since Medieval times" and that "not one euro" of Maltese-origin exports to Libya in 2009 concerned weapons.

He declined to say how many arms-related transit permits it granted in the same year, however.

An EU diplomatic source familiar with documents relating to the shipment said the guns were made by Italy's Fabbrica d'Armi Pietro Beretta. The Italian company told this website it never answers questions on individual transactions.

In an element of mystery, Italy's own data on arms permits for 2009 indicates that it sold rockets and other equipment, but no rifles or handguns, to Libyan hardman Moammar Gaddafi in the year in question.

A shipment of Belgian-made guns to Libya also dating back to 2009 (the latest year for which EU data is available) gives an idea of how much hardware €79.7 million could buy.

Belgian company FN Herstal in 2009 in a smaller order worth €11.5 million sold to Libya: 367 rifles; 367 pistols; 50 "luxury" pistols; 30 "light" machine guns; 22,000 rifle grenades; 1.3 million ammunition cartridges; and 2,000 semi-automatic FN 303 anti-riot guns.

Belgium's State Court initially revoked FN Herstal's licence to ship the kit, citing procedural reasons. But the local government in the Walloon region later reissued the permits.

FN Herstal's website says "the primary effect of the [FN 303] projectile is trauma, capable of stopping the action of the aggressor immediately." It adds: "Misuse may result in injury or death. Never aim at face or head."

"The weapons are now in Libya," Cedric Poitevin, an expert at the Belgian arms-control NGO, Grip, told this website. He pointed to fresh YouTube footage showing what he says is an FN 303 recently captured by anti-Gaddafi protesters.

"According to the civilians, they took the weapon from the hands of mercenaries paid by the Gaddafi family. This weapon is more than probably one of the weapons sent by Belgium in 2009," Mr Poitevin said. "It's a glaring illustration of the risk of selling weapons (especially small arms and light weapons) to unstable and unreliable regimes."

A spokeswoman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton on Wednesday said that most EU countries are unilaterally suspending arms sales to Libya.

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