In the murky and corrupt world of weapons dealing and illicit money, a new wild card has emerged: the billions of dollars that mysteriously vanished after the death of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The vast oil wealth of the toppled dictator, hidden in bank accounts and locked boxes across Africa, has become a key target for Libyan armed factions that seek the money for weapons purchases to fuel their chaotic war, according to sources cited in a new United Nations report.
After years of hunting, the UN investigators have failed to unearth the missing cash and gold, and they concede that some of the claims might be the product of scam artists. But their new report makes it clear that many powerful people – including arms dealers – are convinced of the accuracy of these rumours.
Col. Gadhafi was killed in October, 2011, by rebels who pulled him unceremoniously from a drainage pipe after he fled from a NATO bombing raid.
Shortly before his death, he had reportedly sold a fifth of Libya's gold reserves. He was also known to have extensive business assets across Africa. But the money disappeared.
Since then, everyone from Libyan militias to shadowy brokers and businessmen has been hot on the trail of the missing money. But the UN investigators have now found some intriguing clues.
The information is buried in an appendix to a 299-page report issued this month by the UN Security Council's Panel of Experts on Libya.
Six sources alerted the panel that a large amount of cash and gold had been hidden in West African countries in 2011, and there are now attempts to shift the money back to Libya for the use of "political and military stakeholders" in the war-torn country, the report said.
It gave details of some of the claims. "Four independent sources reported to the Panel that $560-million, in USD 100 denominations, is kept by a group of Libyans in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso," the report said.
Factions in Libya have tried to obtain the money, it said. "Although the transfer of these assets has failed for now, the Panel has seen documentation showing that the logistical preparations were well-advanced. Groups involved in the negotiations expect to receive a commission of 10 or even 35 per cent."
Included in the report are photos of locked steel boxes in Ouagadougou, allegedly containing the Gadhafi cash, and an export licence for $560-million in cash.
The report also contains photos of stacks of locked boxes with a Red Cross logo in a room in Accra, capital of Ghana. Sources told the UN panel that an unknown number of Gadhafi assets were kept in these boxes on the Accra premises of an "international human-rights organization."
A police report on the boxes has been filed with the Ghanaian police, but neither the authorities nor the "human-rights organization" have answered the panel's letters of inquiry about the boxes, it said. Agents reporting to the Libyan National Army have been trying to "recover" the assets in these boxes, the panel said.
But the most detailed clues to the Gadhafi wealth were from South Africa. The panel said it received documents showing that Libyan military forces had tried to use Col. Gadhafi's hidden assets to pay for a multibillion-dollar arms purchase from the South African defence industry.
The panel published a lengthy list of weapons and military equipment – from missile launchers to attack helicopters – that the Libyans had tried to purchase in South Africa in 2013 with the Gadhafi money.
It also published a letter from the South African defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, who expressed her support for the potential deal.
"The volumes and types of the materiel requested by the Libyan party suggest that a large amount of money was indeed readily available, and the negotiations appeared to be relatively advanced," the UN report said.
Two people who were "directly involved in the attempted deal" told the panel that the weapons were to be purchased with hidden Gadhafi assets that were already in South Africa. Libyan agents made several visits to South Africa and had frequent contacts with South African officials to discuss the weapons deal, the panel said.
When the panel asked the South African government to explain the source of the Libyan money for the weapons deals, "no reply was received," it said.
The panel also obtained documentation of a possible $800-million transfer from a South African bank to a Kenyan bank, authorized by a Libyan man named Bashir Saleh al-Shrkawi, who lives in South Africa.
"He has been named by numerous public and private sources as the person who manages funds from the former regime hidden in South Africa and throughout the rest of the continent," the panel said.
It said the Libyan denied any knowledge of the funds. But the documents suggest that "hidden Libyan funds are indeed accessible to members of the former regime in South Africa," it said.