TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya’s new leadership has evidence Muammar Gaddafi bought arms this year from sanctions-busting traders in China and Europe, many of them via Algeria, but are split over how far to retaliate against governments who failed to stop it.
In interviews with Reuters in Tripoli on Monday, officials of the National Transitional Council (NTC) also accused Algeria of acting as Gaddafi’s “lifeline,” providing him with vital supplies and fighters during Libya’s six-month war.
Libya may seek legal and diplomatic redress against suppliers and governments.
But representatives of the NTC, which is still forging its common policies two weeks after ending 42 years of one-man rule, also stressed a need to work with major powers like China, and to let bygones be bygones, even if that included selling the guns Gaddafi used against the rebels or CIA and MI6 cooperation with his agents.
“We have gathered evidence from many sources, including the main documents that were gathered here in Tripoli, that point the finger at several countries that had been supplying Gaddafi with weapons and arms, as well as intelligence officers,” said Abdul Rahman Busin, an NTC military spokesman.
China, anxious that its lukewarm stance on the uprising not cost it oil and contracts in the new Libya, responded on Monday to the publication of unearthed Libyan documents seeming to show that state firms offered Gaddafi weaponry. It confirmed some staff met Libyan envoys in July without the state’s knowledge.
“In July the Gaddafi government sent personnel to China without the knowledge of the Chinese government and they engaged in contact with a handful of people from the companies concerned,” Foreign Minister spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.
“The Chinese companies did not sign arms trade contacts, nor did they export military items to Libya,” she added, saying those Chinese involved would be dealt with “in a serious way.”
Busin said it was unclear if the weaponry detailed in the documents — about $200 million of guns, bullets and rockets for shipping via Algeria — ever arrived before the war ended. But arms did reach Gaddafi from abroad despite a U.N. embargo tightened after the rebellion broke out in the east in mid-February.
“Supplies did get to Gaddafi from several sources,” Busin said. “There are things that we found on the battlefield that he didn’t have before. New things.”
He and other NTC officials acknowledged that governments of countries from which arms were exported, and even manufacturers themselves, might not have been aware that goods were bound for Libya due to the use of intermediaries. But Busin said he thought some political authorities would have known.
“A lot of it was done through a middle man,” he said. “Both middle men and with the countries.”
Aside from China, he said: “We are looking into several countries in eastern Europe.” He also said “Western” suppliers may have been involved, though probably not from NATO members.
He did not know the firms involved, but believed it would be possible to identify them: “We don’t actually have a list of companies. But there are only so many companies in the world that produce arms still. That narrows it down quite a lot.”
Saving particular scorn for Algeria, the only North African state yet to recognize the NTC and which has given refuge to Gaddafi’s wife and daughter, Busin said: “I guess you can call them his right hand man. They were his main lifeline for everything. From basics of food and water supplies to weapons, ammunition, mercenaries, fuel. They were providing him with everything. And we have plenty of evidence for that.”
The ousted Libyan leader’s wife Safia, daughter Aisha and sons Mohammed and Hannibal entered Algeria on August 29 after the Libyan leader was toppled from power.
Libya’s interim rulers have described Algeria’s decision to shelter Gaddafi’s family as an “act of aggression.”
On moves against those involved in smuggling, he said: “We’ll be going through legal channels, through international courts, as well as the United Nations itself, either to prosecute them or to come to a diplomatic understanding.”
Others stressed a need for reconciliation.
Jalal al-Gallal, a spokesman for the NTC, said “I believe” Chinese assurances that Beijing was unaware of arms sales.
“The persons who are trying to bring it into Libya are the ones to blame,” he said. “Algeria is more to blame than the Chinese themselves, with all honesty. Even if the Chinese knew it was destined for Libya, they weren’t delivering it there.
“It’s a mistake. We regret it very much. But we need to look forward, we need to progress, we can’t dwell on these things.”
Asked if the affair could affect current and future trade, he said: “We need to honor the contracts that are already signed. We have maintained that claim. It will reflect very badly on the NTC if it does not honor those statements.
He added that in future, “That’s up to the elected government at the time. It’s very premature to say that future governments will punish them.
“We all need to remember that China is a superpower. We all rely on products that come from China. We would have hoped they would have been on our side ... But if it is the interests of the Libyan people to deal with China, then we will deal with Chin ... It is very expensive and time consuming trying to settle old scores.”
But Gallal also added: “Of course there will be some reaction. We will favor certain countries who stood by us.”
Busin, too, addressing documents indicating U.S. and British intelligence cooperated with Gaddafi against Libyan dissidents, said past disputes should not color Libya’s future: “There’s a lot of work to be done, both diplomatically, politically. Sometimes to forgive and forget is the best course of action.”
Aref el-Nayed, a senior NTC official and director of a unit known as the Libyan Stabilisation Team, said: “Free Libya is keen on great relations with all of humanity ... Different countries had different attitudes toward the Gaddafi regime. The NTC will not be discriminatory because of this.”
He added: “China is a very important member of the international community and we look forward to great relations with China and we look forward to great relations with Russia and all other countries. What is important is that all countries have now entered this consensus (supporting the NTC) and it is from this baseline that we will build our relations.”
Noman Benotman, a former Libyan Islamist militant now working as a senior analyst for British counter-radicalism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, said in London that China was not the only source of weaponry for Gaddafi: “It’s not just Chinese firms,” he said. “Some Western arms dealers were also interested in doing deals with Gaddafi right up until the end.”
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing, Christian Lowe in Tripoli and Peter Apps in London; Writing by Alastair Macdonald and Barry Malone; Editing by Andrew Heavens