Europe's armsmakers scramble for Libya

Feb. 18, 2013 at 4:48 PM
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TRIPOLI, Libya, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- European defense companies are scrambling to re-equip Libya's post-Moammar Gadhafi military forces in an undeclared arms race.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who like traditional rival France maintained an ambiguous relationship with Moammar Gadhafi's rogue regime during his 42-year rule, recently flew to Tripoli to personally promote U.K. weapons systems.

France, whose warplanes like Britain's played a key role in driving Gadhafi from power in Libya's 2011 civil war, is reportedly close to sealing the first significant postwar military contract with Tripoli to train Libyan naval officers.

Paris, which is also hustling its military wares across the Middle East these days, has long had close connections with Libya's military class, many of whom helped overthrow Gadhafi. It's now working the new arms procurement circuits hard.

Italy's also making a big sales pitch, even though Finmeccanica, one of its leading defense companies, is the target of a major corruption investigation by Italian authorities.

The group's chairman and chief executive, Giuseppe Orsi, was arrested Feb. 12 in Rome in connection with a $724 million 12-helicopter deal with India in 2010.

At the time, Orsi was the head of Finmeccanica's AgustaWestland helicopter unit.

The investigation centers on the alleged payment of bribes politicians through slush funds. Orsi denies the allegations.

Earlier this month, Italy's Consorzio Iveco-Oto Melura, delivered more than 20 Puma armored cars to Libya's Defense Ministry. Italian Defense Minister Giampaolo de Paola visited Tripoli Feb. 5.

In January, the French company Sillinger, a subsidiary of the Marck Group, sold Libya 50 rigid inflatable boats for coastal security.

Britain announced last week it is sending a British navy frigate to Tripoli in April to support a "defense and security industry day" in Libya's capital on the Mediterranean.

London's Guardian newspaper, which has long campaigned against selling arms to dictatorships or countries in conflict, said the warship would be "a floating shop window for security firms, amid concern ... that France and Italy are cashing in on the fall of Moammar Gadhafi."

With Libya still the subject of a U.N. Security Council arms embargo and Britain's Foreign Office viewing Libya as a "country of concern" over human rights abuses and the activities of rival militias the post-Gadhafi government is unable to control, Britain is restricted in what military equipment it can sell to Tripoli.

U.K. Trade and Investment, the government agency organizing the April arms fair, won't divulge which British companies will be exhibiting, claiming that would give European competitors an advantage.

"UKTI said no weapons would be offered for sale and the Libyans would only be shown specialist equipment to help with port security and maintenance," The Guardian reported.

But Libya's in the market for modern weapons systems and other equipment, even though the country is awash with weapons, some delivered by NATO forces to rebels opposing Gadhafi in 2011.

During Gadhafi's 42-year rule, the Libyan regime bought massive amounts of arms, mostly from the Soviet Union but the Soviet collapse and international sanctions on Libya during the 1980 because of Gadhafi's support for terrorism, choked off military modernization.

Now, providing its badly hit oil industry can restore pre-war production levels of around 1.7 million barrels per day, "Libya looks set to become an important customer for foreign-made weapons," the U.S. publication Defense Daily observed.

Libya had been due to get new warships, combat aircraft and armor from Moscow under contracts worth $4 billion but the U.N. embargo, and Gadhafi's demise, halted that.

Now the Europeans are seeking to cash in.

Defense contracts were once the preserve of Gadhafi's sons, Moatassim, Saif al-Islam and Khamis but, now that the military has the upper hand again, the main defense companies have to deal with is Gen. Youssef al-Mangush, the armed forces chief of staff.

The Intelligence Online website reports that "two of the three officials in charge of procurement for Libya's navy, Colonels Abdel Zag and Ramdan, will be in Paris at the end of February" to finalize the training deal.

Zag, like many Libyan officers, has close ties to France, and he's currently receiving French bids for warships and equipment.

That's probably music to the ears of Cherbourg's Constructions Mecaniques de Normandie, France's patrol vessel manufacturer, which is pressing Tripoli to buy its Combattante class vessels.

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