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U.N. sanctions panel investigates reports of French/Qatari arms transfers to Libya's rebels

A U.N. panel set up last year to enforce an arms embargo in Libya has opened an inquiry into allegations that France and Qatar armed Libyan rebels involved in the overthrow of Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's government, according to confidential report by the panel.

The eight-member panel has made no ruling on whether the allies of the rebel Libyan government violated sanctions -- and it remains unclear whether the panel will in the future -- given that France and other allies in the Security Council can exercise considerable authority over the panel.

Still, the report sheds new light on how the anti-Qaddafi opposition was able to transform a collection of militias and tribal leaders into a fighting force capable of defeating the government's superior military forces. And it includes acknowledgments by France and Qatar that they supplied military advisers to the insurgents to help prevent government attacks on civilians.

The report, which has not been made public, was distributed to the 15 governments that sit on the U.N. Security Council, and includes a stamp of the recipient country on each page, a practice that is used to limit leaks. But Turtle Bay obtained excerpts of the report from sources with access to it.

The panels' s findings come as Libya is trying to rebuild its military capability. Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. envoy, appealed to the Security Council earlier this month to lift the arms embargo, saying his government needs to buy new weapons to maintain security in the country and reinforce its borders.

The U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo, travel ban, and asset freeze on Libya on Feb. 26, 2011, in an effort to prevent Qaddafi from importing weapons to help him crush the popular uprising that ultimately led to his fall from power. They established a panel to enforce the sanctions.

On March 17, the Security Council, acting at the request of the United States, amended the embargo to permit some unspecified military support, providing flexibility to NATO forces enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya.

The role of foreign militaries in supporting the insurgents on the ground was an open secret during the conflict, but the legal basis for arming them was hotly debated.

At the time, the Security Council was sharply divided over whether the exemption applied to shipments of arms to the rebels. The United States and France argued that such shipments were permitted, particularly in instances where the weapons could be used to defend civilians from a government attack. But several other council members, including Brazil, China, India, South Africa, and Portugal -- which chairs the committee -- believed that it was not. Even Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, a strong supporter of the Libyan intervention, questioned the legality of arming the rebels.

The panel has relied on a combination of news reports and interviews with Libyan insurgents and officials from the former regime.

It cites a July 2011 interview in Benghazi, in which Qaddafi's defense minister, and an arms expert in the Libyan Ministry of Defense, accused Qatar of channeling massive amounts of weapons into Libya. "The panel was clearly informed that several countries were supporting the opposition through deliveries of arms and ammunition including Qatar," reads the report. "According to the same sources, between the beginning of the uprising and the day of the interview, approximately 20 flights had delivered materiel from Qatar to the revolutionaries in Libya, including French anti-tank weapons launchers, MILANS."

"A number of media reports indicate that Qatar supported the armed opposition to [Qaddafi] from early on in the conflict by participating in the NATO air operations, as well as through the direct provision of a range of military materiel and military personnel," the report added.

The panel honed in on a July 2011 report in a Swiss television program that stocks of Swiss-made M-80 rifle ammunition was used by anti-Qaddafi forces in Libya. The ammunition had been sold to Qatar in 2009, but Swiss authorities told the sanctions committee that the ammunition had been exported to Qatar under the condition that it not be re-exported to another buyer.

"Swiss authorities have thoroughly looked into this case and have been in contact with the authorities of Qatar," Johann Aeschlimann, a spokesman for the Swiss mission to the United Nations, told Turtle Bay. "For Switzerland, the case is settled. Switzerland has informed the panel of experts of the Libya sanctions committee of the UN Security Council in detail about this case."

The Qatari government denied supplying any weapons or ammunition to the insurgents, saying it did not know how the Swiss ammunition found its way into Libya. In a Feb. 12, 2012, letter Qatar informed the panel that it "sent a limited number of military personnel to provide military consultations to the revolutionaries, defend Libyan civilians and protect aid convoys and that it supplied those Qatari military personnel with limited army and ammunition for the purpose of self defense," according to the panel report. But Qatar "categorically denies the information reported by some media that it supplied the revolutionaries with arms and ammunition."

"If some of the afore-mentioned ammunition found its way to some Libyan revolutionaries, the Qatari government has no explanation other than the conditions of fierce fighting taking place in most of the Libyan territory, which could have lead to exceptional consequences that are difficult to assess."

On June 30, 2011, France informed the U.N. secretary general that it had "airdropped self-defense weapons for the civilian population that had been victims of attacks by Libyan armed forces," according to the panel. "In the absence of any other operational means of protecting these populations under threat."

On July 20, the panel asked France to provide them with "detailed information" on the arms drops, including "the exact types and quantities of weapons, serial/lot numbers, marking details of the different items and the dates and location(s) of the deliveries." According to the report, France provided some details, including the period and location of the airdrops, as well as "a list of humanitarian and military materiel." They asked the panel to keep the information confidential.

"France notified its actions as requested by the resolution and actively cooperates with the panel," Brieuc Pont, a spokesman for the French mission to the United Nations told Turtle Bay.

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