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State Dept: No ‘Firm Evidence’ Libyan Anti-Aircraft Missiles Have Left Country

Scott Peterson/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Seeking to try to allay growing reports that Libya’s portable anti-aircraft weapons walked out of the country amid the chaos of the country’s NATO-supported civil war may not have been realized, a top U.S. State Department official claimed Monday.

“Thus far, we have not seen any firm evidence that they have left the country, but we are still obviously very concerned about it,” Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs Andrew Schapiro, whose office has overseen efforts to track down and secure or destroy those weapons, told reporters.

Libya is believed to have stockpiled up to 20,000 of the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons known as MANPADs since the 1970s. Some of the weapons have heat-seeking capabilities and could be used to take down a commercial airliner. After this year’s NATO-led bombing campaign many, perhaps thousands, were destroyed and others got loose, sparking fears that they could fall into the hands of terrorists.

Schapiro didn’t say whether they may have fallen into the wrong hands within Libya, but regional al Qaeda leaders have suggested they have benefited from the instability there by scooping up those and other deadly weapons.

The State Department has been working with Libyan authorities to secure the weapons and destroy any that are not needed for the country’s defense. The U.S. has already invested millions of dollars in the effort. Schapiro visited Libya earlier this month where he said that so far the State Department has secured nearly 5,000 of the weapons.

The State Department believes many thousands more may have been destroyed when NATO planes bombed Moammar Gadhafi’s weapons depots. Their experts are now going to those sites to try to catalogue how many were there. It’s also unclear how many Gadhafi may have used or how many others may no longer be operational after years in storage.

The rest are believed to be in the hands of militias who looted some of the weapons caches during and after the war.

“The key now is convincing those who hold onto these weapons to turn them in and take them out of circulation.  And we were working with the Libyan authorities on the best way to do that,” Schapiro told reporters, adding that they are also in touch with the militias.

The State Department on Monday released its 10th annual report entitled “To Walk the Earth in Safety” on its efforts to destroy and clear conventional weapons like MANPADs and land mines around the world.

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