Nearly a month ago, while Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s artillery pounded Misrata in central Libya, a fishing boat brought a former Canadian soldier to the besieged rebels stronghold carrying with him two small cases packed with high-tech gear.
Charles Barlow, who heads a private security firm, was bringing the rebels a remote-controlled aerial drone they had purchased from an Ontario robotics manufacturer.
The mission had been approved by the Canadian government, which played matchmaker, putting the Libyan rebels in touch with Aeryon Labs Inc. of Waterloo, Ont.
With the rebels’ entry into Tripoli this week, Aeryon has now revealed its role in providing them drones, offering a peek into how foreign governments have discreetly gone beyond the framework of the NATO bombing missions to help the anti-Gadhafi forces.
“I hope we did a little tiny part to help get rid of that man,” Mr. Barlow said in an interview.
How much outside assistance the rebels have received on the ground remains a secretive issue. There have been reports that British, French, Qatari or Jordanian special forces have been involved. Journalists have also spotted armed Westerners who appear to be either special forces operators or former soldiers employed by private companies.
A key development that brought Aeryon to Libya, Mr. Barlow said, was the federal government’s June 14 decision to recognize the rebel National Transitional Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
This allowed Canadian companies to legally do business with the rebels.
Aeryon CEO Dave Kroetsch said his company was contacted by federal officials who knew through NTC representatives in Canada that the rebels were looking to purchase their own drones. “We were approached by the Canadian government. They were very much aware of our technology.”
The American Predator drones flying over Libya are armed aircraft with 17-metre wingspans that are controlled by operators based in the United States. The rebels, however, needed something of their own, smaller, cheaper and able to give them video images in real time.
Two years ago, Aeryon had developed the Scout, a micro-drone. Shaped like a spider and electrically powered, the Scout weights only 1.3 kilograms and is about the size of an open umbrella. The rebels could use its cameras to observe enemy positions and plan tactical moves.
At the same time, the Scout is unarmed and classified as a consumer good so that it is not bound by the more restrictive export rules for military products, Mr. Kroetsch said.
Each device retails for $100,000 to $150,000. Mr. Kroetsch would not say how much the council paid but it is believed that only one or two were sent to the rebels.
The council paid upfront for the drones, Mr. Barlow said.
Since May, the NATO members, Arab states and other nations that make up the Libya contact group have set up a fund to assist rebel groups, financing it in part with frozen Gadhafi-regime assets.
Mr. Barlow now runs the Ottawa firm Zariba Security Corp. For the past two years, he has conducted drone training for Aeryon for prospective clients such as the Interior and Defence ministries of India and the governments of Oman and Saudi Arabia.
At the end of July, Mr. Barlow flew to Malta where he boarded a former South Korean tuna boat now operated by the council. Also aboard were donated ambulances, doctors, a team of demining volunteers and a BBC news crew.
After an 18-hour sea journey, he landed in Misrata and was taken to the airport where he unpacked his hardware. He then showed the rebels how to fly the Scout, using it to check a pro-Gadhafi artillery position four kilometres away.
By the next day, Mr. Barlow was on his way out of the besieged city, but the Scouts stayed behind.Report Typo/Error