TAJOURA: When Moammar Gadhafi’s soldiers fled this corner of a field outside Tripoli where they were camped, they left behind their army fatigues, a can of Brut deodorant – and a Scud tactical missile.
Days later, the Soviet-made rocket, loaded on its launch truck and pointing toward the Libyan capital, is still sitting under the eucalyptus trees where they left it. The motley rebel forces who overthrew Gadhafi two weeks ago have set up no guard to prevent anyone taking it away or looting it for parts.
Western powers and Libya’s neighbors fear that the power vacuum could allow huge quantities of unsecured weapons left over from the civil war to end up in the hands of Islamist militants, in particular the North African branch of Al-Qaeda.
Officials with Libya’s interim government, the National Transitional Council, say they are trying to secure these weapons. But there was little evidence of that at the Scud site, in farmland about 25 km southeast of Tripoli.
Abdelhamid Omar Derbek, a colonel at the local anti-Gadhafi military headquarters, said he and his men visit the site several times a day.
“I patrol here … and there is another shift that does it as well,” said Derbek, who had a Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder but whose military rank was not evident from his outfit of yellow Lacoste T-shirt, jeans and sandals.
For all his assertions of supervision, however, Derbek is based at a military facility about 15 km away. He drove with a team of Reuters journalists from his camp to the site Sunday but there was no one stationed there to guard it.
A Scud-launching complex, consisting of an 11-meter rocket with a range of up to 300 km depending on the variant, could be a valuable resource for any insurgent.
Even without launching it, the warhead alone contains up to a ton of high explosive, which could be stripped from the missile and used to make improvised bombs for urban guerrillas.
“The possibility is certainly there,” acknowledged Shashank Joshi, a military expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.
“Algeria has been terrified throughout this conflict of stocks like this, explosive devices, being taken out of Libya and used by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
It is unlikely militants could steal the whole system and fire the missile. There was no sign at the site of any of the liquid fuel that propels the missile. This is stored separately because it is corrosive, and it has to be loaded into the missile before firing. “It is not useful to a militant unless they have a source of liquid fuel nearby,” said Joshi.
Operating the missile also requires skilled technicians, he said, but it is theoretically possible that Al-Qaeda could find these. After the Red Army pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, mujahideen fighters – some of whom later joined Al-Qaeda – obtained stocks of Soviet Scuds and learned how to fire them.
“Clearly sometimes insurgent fighters can use Scud missiles,” said Joshi.
In an interview with Reuters Friday, the senior European Union representative in Tripoli said the bloc was concerned that Islamist militants could obtain weapons in Libya and take them out across the country’s largely unpoliced borders.
The NTC – preoccupied with trying to catch Gadhafi, defeat his supporters in their remaining strongholds, and deal with shortages of fuel and water – says securing the arms is a priority but not something that can be done straight away.
“Of course we are in a state of war, and Gadhafi definitely left some weapons and mines,” General Omar Hariri, one of the interim government’s senior military commanders, told reporters in Tripoli last week.
“We have a group of military engineers who are specialized in finding out and digging out such weapons and such mines and it is only a matter of days before we are clearing all of these mines and gathering Gadhafi’s weapons,” he said. “We are still in a state of war so it’s very normal, it’s very natural.”
The Scud site is next to a highway leading east out of Tripoli and a short distance from a depot operated by U.S. oil services firm Schlumberger.
It provided a glimpse of how Gadhafi’s forces had planned to use their military hardware for a last-ditch fight and then hurriedly abandoned their posts.
In total there were four mobile missile launchers parked within a radius of about 500 meters at the site.
Only one of the launchers had a missile mounted on it. It was not clear what had happened to the other rockets.
“We do not know,” said Abdelmounem Sabri, another colonel attached to the anti-Gadhafi military facility 15 km away.
“They were not fired.”
Scattered in the sand around the launcher that was still loaded with a missile were about half a dozen anti-personnel mines, which appeared to have been dropped in their rush to leave.
The crews had been living in a half-finished house a short distance away.
At the house where the crews fled to, there were again signs of a hasty departure. A traditional Arab water pipe was still primed with scented tobacco. On flimsy mattresses on the floor lay strewn razors, deodorant, toothbrushes and a pack of vitamin C tablets.
Where the crews have gone, taking with them their expertise and, possibly, a grudge against Libya’s new rulers, is anyone’s guess.