U.S. eyes arms sales to Libya

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is ready to consider arms deals with Libya, a former foe, that could include transport aircraft and systems for coastal and border security, the U.S. Defense Department said on Friday.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi speaks east of Tripoli, March 2, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

“We will consider Libyan requests for defense equipment that enables them to build capabilities in areas that serve our mutual interest,” said Lt. Col. Elizabeth Hibner of the Army, a department spokeswoman.

As examples, she referred to systems used for border and coastal security as well as “theater airlift,” by implication aircraft such as Lockheed Martin Corp’s C-130 Hercules that can ferry forces and equipment.

Libya entered a new era with the U.S. military in January with the signing of what the Pentagon calls a “non-binding statement of intent” aimed at developing bilateral military ties.

Relations had warmed after Libya gave up banned weapons programs in 2003, and again after settlement of compensation claims for attacks including the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, for which Libya has accepted responsibility.

“Initial contacts between the two militaries have been very positive,” Hibner said. “Both sides recognize that since we haven’t had good relations in almost four decades, we both have a lot to relearn about each other’s countries and policies and how to work together.”

Charles Taylor, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, said Libya already had requested approval to buy Humvees, the rugged light trucks that are the vehicular backbone of U.S. forces worldwide.

As a prelude to any such sale, U.S. and Libyan officials were working to mesh certain aspects of their acquisition systems, he said without providing details.

A team of Libyan government officials toured undisclosed U.S. facilities last summer and voiced interest in a number of unspecified systems in addition to the Humvee, Taylor said.

Under current U.S. policy, Libya is barred from buying anything other than “non-lethal” defense articles and services.

David Hamod, president and chief executive of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce, said he had led two high-level delegations to Libya in recent years, each including representatives of more than 20 U.S. companies.

Defense contractors Lockheed Martin, Boeing Co and Raytheon Co have been among those taking part in such delegations, representatives of the companies have said.

“To the best of my knowledge nobody talked about arms sales,” Hamod said in a telephone interview. He said the defense contractors’ talks focused instead on commercial applications of their know-how.

“Libya is going to seek defense articles from somebody,” Hamod said. “And I think it’s in America’s interest to be the provider ... It’s an integral part of the growing relationship.”

Since sanctions against Libya were lifted by the United Nations Security Council in September 2003, energy-rich Libya has favored mostly European and Asian companies for multibillion-dollar infrastructure deals.

Reporting by Jim Wolf; editing by Tim Dobbyn