Tunis — Libyan weapons and foreign fighters are increasingly finding their way to the front lines of the Syrian conflict, where tens of thousands of civilians have died over three years of war.
A number of recent reports have highlighted the leading role played by Libyans in arming rebel fighters in Syria.
"News of the discovery of smuggled weapons from Libya to other countries has become routine for Libyans. It is sounding like the weather bulletin provided by our television stations every day," Tripoli resident Younes El-Borai said in response to the latest news on arms smuggling.
There are no reliable official figures about this phenomenon but Libyan authorities have expressed concern on more than one occasion. On June 18th, the fourth battalion of Libya's Shield forces announced the successful arrest of a group of outlaws in possession of 34 rockets in the city of Gharyan in the north-west of the country.
On June 2nd, Ali Zidan revealed that national security forces in Tobruk had foiled a smuggling operation of dozens of rockets that were on their way to the Egyptian border. Zidan said at the time that these weapons included 10 Milan rockets and about 50 Grad rockets as well as thermal rockets. They were discovered near the border town of Jaghbub.
Zidan added that his country paid special importance to border control as was an issue of national sovereignty. He noted that a civilian advisory panel to protect the borders sent by the European Union was set arrive in Libya to provide technical support in the field of border protection, pursuant to the agreement between Libya and the EU.
Earlier this year, the United Nations published a report that noted Libyan weapons were spreading beyond the country's borders, from Mali to the Levant. The February 15th report from a panel created to investigate breaches of the Libyan arms embargo said weapons were sent from Libya to Syria "through networks and routes passing through either Turkey or northern Lebanon".
"Transfers of military materiel have been organised from various locations in Libya, including Misrata and Benghazi. The significant size of some shipments and the logistics involved suggest that representatives of the Libyan local authorities might have at least been aware of the transfers, if not actually directly involved," the UN report stated.
The report also noted Syria was a "prominent destination for Libyan fighters" who have "joined brigades as individuals or through networks to support the Syrian opposition".
The UN cited several specific examples where Libyan equipment was shipped to Syria, including one case where 400 tons of material was transferred from Benghazi to the Syrian opposition aboard the Al Entisar fishing boat.
Abdul Basit Haroun Shehibi, commander of Abu Salim Martyrs' Brigade, confessed last month to Reuters that he stood behind the largest arms' shipments that have been transferred from Libya to the rebels in Syria. "These shipments are transported by air to neighbouring countries, and then smuggled across the border," he said.
Haroun Shehibi confirmed that he sends aid and weapons to support Syrians striving for the same freedom he fought for during the Libyan revolution.
Haroun Shehibi, who was a UK resident during the rule of Kadhafi, returned during the Libyan revolution to participate with rebels in toppling the regime. He formed the Abu Slim Martyrs' Brigade in Benghazi to commemorate the massacre in Abu Slim Prison.
Images posted on Facebook purportedly show him travelling to Syria last August to deliver a shipment of weapons.
Before forming his brigade, Haroun Shehibi joined the "February 17 Brigade" led by Ismael al-Sallabi, who is currently wanted by international justice for his involvement in war crimes.
During the first days after the fall of the Libyan regime, former intelligence official Rami al-Obeidi said that Abdul Basit Haroun Shehibi (real name Qais Haroun) "controlled the state security agency via his brigade and the 17 February Brigade led by Muslim Brotherhood member Ismael al-Sallabi." Al-Obeidi told Al Watan Al Arabi in November 2011 that "Shehibi sympathises with al-Qaeda".
Young Libyans are also being caught up in the war in Syria. A June report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that more Libyans had died in the Syrian conflict than any other group of foreigners.
Citing data from Flashpoint Global Partners, the think-tank said Libya was "the undisputed leader" in the number of foreigners killed fighting in Syria, representing more than one in five foreign jihadists slain in the fighting.
"It is hard to dispute the outsized role that Libyan fighters have played in the Syrian uprising," the report stated.