A month after U.S. officials told ABC News they were moving quickly to secure unguarded weapons in Libya, human rights investigators have found a huge cache of unprotected weapons, including bombs, tank shells and dozens of surface-to-air missiles, in the city of Sirte.
"Anybody want a surface-to-air missile?" asks Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, in a video shot Sunday in near where Moammar Gadhafi and his son Mutassim made their last stand. Though the U.S. is rushing more and more specialists to Libya in a race to find the massive stores of weapons that have gone missing since the start of the Libyan uprising, Bouckaert beat them to Sirte.
Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro told ABC News that there was "obviously" a race to find the weapons before they fall into the hands of terrorists, "and that's why we're deploying people as quickly as we possibly can." Shapiro said the U.S. plans to increase its presence on the ground from 10 teams of weapons specialists, or less than 35 people total, to 50 teams.
"We believe that based on our examination of the numerous sites that thousands of missiles were actually destroyed during the NATO bombing campaign," said Shapiro, "and [that another] thousand missiles have been disabled or damaged."
But Shapiro also said the U.S. still doesn't know how many of the 20,000 surface-to-air missiles once held by the Gadhafi regime are unaccounted for. "We're in the process of visiting sites and putting together the information about the scope of the problem," said Shapiro.
Libyans alerted by the U.S. reached the Sirte site found by Human Rights Watch on Thursday, according to Shapiro, and moved the missiles there "to a more secure location." Shapiro denied that the Libyans had gone to the site because ABC News planned to report on it, but said the U.S. had "immediately acted" on information provided by Human Rights Watch. He said it would have been difficult to get to Sirte earlier because there was still fighting in the city last week.
In September, Shapiro said the U.S. was "making great progress" in accounting for the Gadhafi regime's missing munitions, but that the U.S. did not have a clear picture of how many missiles it was attempting to track down. Just last week, during a visit to Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "I am pleased to announce that we are going to put even more money into helping Libya secure and destroy dangerous stockpiles of weapons."
In the past month, some of the Gadhafi regime's Russian-made surface-to-air missiles have turned up in Egypt and at the Israeli border. Egyptian authorities say they have arrested weapons smugglers brining the weapons east from Libya toward Israel. According to the Washington Post, so many of the weapons were being sold in Egyptian black markets that the price had dropped from $10,000 to $4,000 per weapon.
It would take only one of the shoulder-fired, heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles, which have a range of two miles, to bring down a commercial aircraft. On Sunday, Bouckaert found dozens of Russian SA-7 missiles scattered across the ground in Sirte, along with empty crates.
Bouckaert found unsecured weapons both in a warehouse on the outskirts of Sirte, and in a complex of 70 warehouses south of Sirte.
"These facilities are still uncontrolled," said Bouckaert. "We could literally have come here with a convoy of 18 wheeler trucks and wheeled away whatever we wanted without even being noticed."
Bouckaert says despite his warnings to the U.S. State Department and the CIA since February, real progress in securing the weapons has been slow.
He also said that on Thursday morning, U.S. weapons specialists told him they'd been instructed to take action on the SAMs in Sirte as soon as possible so that Assistant Secretary Shapiro would be able to say so in his interview with ABC News.