China offered huge stockpiles of weapons to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi during the final months of his regime, according to papers that describe secret talks about shipments via Algeria and South Africa.
Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that state-controlled Chinese arms manufacturers were prepared to sell weapons and ammunition worth at least $200-million to the embattled Col. Gadhafi in late July, a violation of United Nations sanctions.
The documents suggest that Beijing and other governments may have played a double game in the Libyan war, claiming neutrality but covertly helping the dictator. The papers do not confirm whether any military assistance was delivered, but senior leaders of the new transitional government in Tripoli say the documents reinforce their suspicions about the recent actions of China, Algeria and South Africa. Those countries may now suffer a disadvantage as Libya’s new rulers divide the spoils from their vast energy resources, and select foreign firms for the country’s reconstruction.
Omar Hariri, chief of the transitional council’s military committee, reviewed the documents and concluded that they explain the presence of brand-new weapons his men encountered on the battlefield. He expressed outrage that the Chinese were negotiating an arms deal even while his forces suffered heavy casualties in the slow grind toward Tripoli.
“I’m almost certain that these guns arrived and were used against our people,” Mr. Hariri said.
Senior rebel officials confirmed the authenticity of the four-page memo, written in formal style on the green eagle letterhead used by a government department known as the Supply Authority, which deals with procurement. The Globe and Mail found identical letterhead in the Tripoli offices of that department. The memo was discovered in a pile of trash sitting at the curb in a neighbourhood known as Bab Akkarah, where several of Col. Gadhafi’s most loyal supporters had lavish homes.
The document reports in detail about a trip by Col. Gadhafi’s security officials from Tripoli to Beijing. They arrived on July 16, and in the following days they met with officials from three state-controlled weapons manufacturers: China North Industries Corp. (Norinco); the China National Precision Machinery Import & Export Corp. (CPMIC); and China XinXing Import & Export Corp. The Chinese companies offered the entire contents of their stockpiles for sale, and promised to manufacture more supplies if necessary.
The hosts thanked the Libyans for their discretion, emphasized the need for confidentiality, and recommended delivery via third parties.
“The companies suggest that they make the contracts with either Algeria or South Africa, because those countries previously worked with China,” the memo says.
The Chinese companies also noted that many of the items the Libyan delegation requested were already held in the arsenals of the Algerian military, and could be transported immediately across the border; the Chinese said they could replenish the Algerian stocks afterward. The memo also indicated that Algeria had not yet consented to such an arrangement, and proposed further talks at the branch offices of the Chinese companies in Algiers.
Appendices stapled to the memo, and scattered nearby, show the deadly items under discussion: truck-mounted rocket launchers; fuel-air explosive missiles; and anti-tank missiles, among others. Perhaps most controversially, the Chinese apparently offered Col. Gadhafi’s men the QW-18, a surface-to-air missile small enough for a soldier to carry on his shoulder – roughly similar to a U.S. Stinger, capable of bringing down some military aircraft.
Government spokespeople in Beijing, Algiers and Pretoria either declined to comment or could not be reached on Friday. E-mails sent to two Chinese arms manufacturers were not answered.
The three governments have been reluctant to endorse NATO’s actions in Libya, but claimed to support the arms embargo. Before abstaining from the UN resolution that authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, China approved an earlier decision, Resolution 1970, that banned all military assistance to Tripoli. At the time, China’s representative at the United Nations said the “bloodshed and civilian casualties” were part of the “special circumstances” that prompted his country to vote in favour of the sanctions. South Africa also endorsed the sanctions, saying they would send a message that the Libyan regime should stop its indiscriminate use of force.
Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci issued a statement on Thursday, saying that his country had “resolutely applied” the terms of UN resolutions, and complaining about widespread rumours to the contrary.
“The truth of Algeria’s behaviour will be revealed,” Mr. Medelci said.
A possible justification for any state caught supplying weapons to Col. Gadhafi would be that NATO, and other sponsors of the Libyan rebels, were funnelling arms to the opposite side of the conflict. Trucks filled with war supplies rolled across the Egyptian border for rebels in the east, and France confirmed that it dropped weapons – including Milan anti-tank missiles – into the hands of rebels in the mountains of the western front.
Those supplies for the rebels were not prohibited by Resolution 1970, however; the embargo referred specifically to the “Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,” or Libyan government.
“About the ‘Oh, NATO did it too!’ defence, I don’t think it holds,” said Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think tank.
Arms embargoes are usually monitored by panels of experts appointed by the United Nations. George Lopez, a professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies who recently served on such a panel, said that proof of a violation typically requires a bill of lading or other documentation to show that weapons changed hands.
If anybody strikes a deal that breaks the rules, however, it may also qualify as a sanctions violation.
“The willingness to assent to the deal is all that is needed,” Mr. Lopez said.
Given the difficulty of punishing UN embargo breaches, it seems likely that the more important consequences for the countries involved – China and Algeria in particular – will be their tarnished reputations in Tripoli.
Now that Col. Gadhafi has lost power, the Chinese appear to fear, with some justification, that they could lose their foothold in the Libyan oil fields.
“Oil is a basis for war, and oil was the fundamental interest behind the war,” wrote the Chinese media group Caixin in a recent commentary.
A senior official at the Arabian Gulf Oil Co., in Benghazi, told The Globe and Mail last month that he would be reluctant to do business with Chinese companies in future because of their government’s stand against the rebellion.
While a diplomatic quarrel between China and Libya may have significant economic implications, the tensions along the Algerian border may prove more troublesome from a security standpoint. Many Libyans already feel outraged by the fact that Col. Gadhafi’s wife and three children escaped into Algeria last week, and a rebel commander suggested that his men might pursue them into Algerian territory.
At the beginning of the uprising, rebels used radar installations at Benina Airport, near Benghazi, to track suspicious aircraft travelling between Algeria and the loyalist strongholds of Sabha and Surt. They recorded details for several flights by giant C-130 Hercules and Ilyushin Il-76 transport planes, bearing registration codes used by the Algerian military.
“Now we know what was inside those planes,” said Mohammed Sayeh, a member of the National Transitional Council. “That is why it took the Libyan people such a long time to get rid of the dictator, because they were fighting against the mercenaries and machinery provided by our neighbours.”
The new leadership in Tripoli seems acutely aware, however, that Libya needs peace with the neighbours during this shaky moment of transition. Having seized control of the capital, the rebels have not yet secured some of the remote desert towns that remain dangerously close to the Algerian border. Even while criticizing Algiers for its role in the war, Mr. Hariri referred to the Algerians as “brothers;” Mr. Sayeh emphasized that the new government must forge good relations with all countries, regardless of their history.
“We will start a new era,” Mr. Sayeh said. “We will forgive them, but we will not forget.”
Battle-hardened fighters seem less inclined to forgive. The authoritarian regime in Algiers now finds itself uncomfortably close to two North African countries that have overthrown their dictators, which could offer staging grounds for dissidents. Salaheldin Badi, a former pilot who commands one of the Misrata brigades that rushed into Tripoli last month, hinted that his men might be willing to let their revolutionary fervour spill across the border.
“Algeria played an important role, helping Gadhafi get his Chinese weapons,” Mr. Badi said. “That’s okay,” he added, with a mischievous grin, “because we will send weapons back for the revolutions in their countries.”