TRIPOLI, Libya – At the heart of the Libyan capital, the open-air Fish Market was once a place where residents went to buy everything from meat and seafood to clothes and pets. Now it's Tripoli's biggest arms market, with tables displaying pistols and assault rifles. Ask a vendor, and he can pull out bigger machine guns to sell for thousands of dollars.
Libya, where hundreds of militias hold sway and the central government is virtually powerless, is awash in millions of weapons with no control over their trafficking. The arms free-for-all fuels not only Libya's instability but also stokes conflicts around the region as guns are smuggled through the country's wide-open borders to militants fighting in insurgencies and wars stretching from Syria to West Africa.
The lack of control is at times stunning. Last month, militia fighters stole a planeload of weapons sent by Russia for Libya's military when it stopped to refuel at Tripoli International Airport on route to a base in the south. The fighters surrounded the plane on the tarmac and looted the shipment of automatic weapons and ammunition, Hashim Bishr, an official with a Tripoli security body under the Interior Ministry, told The Associated Press.
In a further indignity, the fighters belonged to a militia officially assigned by the government to protect the airport, since regular forces are too weak to do it.
Only a few weeks earlier, another militia seized a weapons' shipment that landed at Tripoli's Mitiga Airport meant for the military's 1st Battalion, Bishr said. Among the weapons were heavy anti-aircraft guns, which are a pervasive weapon among the militias and are usually mounted on the back of pickup trucks.
The weapons chaos has alarmed Europe — just a short distance across the Mediterranean — and the United States. At a conference in Rome this month, Western and Arab diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, pressed Libyan officials to reach some political consensus so the international community can help the government collect weapons and rebuild the military and police.
The problem is that Europe and the U.S. simply don't know who to talk to in Libya, a Western diplomat in Tripoli told the AP.
"It's about whether they are capable of receiving the help," he said, speaking on spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about the discussions at the conference. He pointed to an international effort to build storage houses in which to collect weapons in the western Libyan town of Gharyan. That project has stumbled, he said, because of the problem of determining "who is in charge and whom we work with."
The 42-year rule of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi left the country without solid political institutions. Since his fall and death in the 2011 civil war, the instability has only spiraled. The rebel brigades that formed to fight him have turned into powerful militias, many based on tribe, region, city or even neighborhood, that often battle each other as they carve out zones of control. Some have hard-line Islamist or even al-Qaida-inspired ideologies.
The militias outgun the military and police, which were shattered in the civil war. The government has to hire militias to take up security duties at airports, seaports, hospitals and government buildings. A militia assigned to protect oil facilities in the east turned around and took over the facilities last year, demanding greater autonomy for the country's eastern region, and the vital oil industry has been virtually shut down since.
Libya's politicians are themselves deeply divided, broadly along Islamist and anti-Islamist lines, each backed by rival militias, turning politics into an armed conflict. Militias, for example, have besieged parliament to force passage of particular laws and once briefly kidnapped the prime minister.
Highlighting the divisions, Libya sent two separate delegations to the Rome Conference, one headed by then-Prime Minister Ali Zidan, the other by his rival, Islamist parliament chief Nouri Abu-Sahmain. Soon after the conference, lawmakers led by Islamists succeeded in removing Zidan in a no-confidence vote.
Several officials told the AP that the government does not know how many weapons there are in Libya, a country of 6 million people.
Saleh Jaweida, a lawmaker on parliament's National Security Committee, said that all figures are speculation but that a plausible estimate is between 10 million to 15 million light weapons — up to an assault rifle — and not counting heavier caliber weapons or armor.
Many of the arms came from the arsenals of the Gadhafi-era military and police, which were looted during the civil war and after the collapse of his rule. Another source is the large amount of weapons shipped to the rebels during the eight-month uprising, largely from Gulf Arab nations.
The hundreds of militias around the country absorb as much weapons as they can because no group knows how well armed rival groups are, creating a climate of "mutual fear," Bishr said.
There is also a strong domestic market for weapons among the public for personal protection. Nearly every household is believed to have at least one gun, but usually it's several.
The Fish Market is one main source in Tripoli — located only steps from the capital's historic Red Castle, where Gadhafi delivered a speech from the ramparts during the 2011 uprising, threatening to open his arsenal to the public and turn Libya into "a red fire."
Smuggling abroad is also big business. Abdel-Basit Haroun, a former top intelligence official, said tribes and militias that control the eastern, western, and southern borders are engaged in arms smuggling.
A 97-page report released in March by United Nations Panel of Experts said weapons that originated in Libya were found in 14 countries, often reaching militant groups. The report said smuggling is mainly from Libyan militias' arsenals.
Sophisticated man-portable, ground-to-air rocket systems, known as MANPADS, have reached four conflict zones, including Chad and Mali.
"Fears that terrorist groups would acquire these weapons have materialized," the report said.
A MANPAD that militants in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula used to shoot down an Egyptian military helicopter this year originated in Libya, it said.
Libyan weapons were also found in Somalia, the Central African Republic and in parts of Nigeria where the militant group Boko Haram operates, it said.
In Niger, weapons used in the country's first suicide attack — last May — were typical of the Libyan arsenals and appear to have been smuggled in through Mali.
Another major destination for Libya's weapons is Syria. The report said investigators found that Qatar has been using its air force flights to transport weapons from Libya and eventually to Turkey, from where they are passed to rebels in Syria. The report said Russian-made weapons bought in 2000 by Gadhafi's regime were found in the hands of Islamic militant rebels in Syria.
"In a very real sense, Libya is exporting its insecurity to surrounding countries," wrote one of the authors of the report, Brian Katulis, a senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Efforts by Libya to control the weapons traffic have gone nowhere. In a Catch-22, militias say they cannot surrender their weapons until there is a proper military and police force to keep security in the country, yet the regular forces cannot be rebuilt when militias have so much power.
Under the Libyan government's Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration program, some 160,000 militiamen have been registered under the Interior Ministry's Warriors Affairs Agency. A small portion of them have given up their weapons and demobilized. But most have been assigned various security tasks in an attempt to rope militias under state aegis.
Zuhair al-Ugli, the head of communications for the Warrior Affairs Agency, said there is no mechanism for dealing with the tide of guns.
"The state is paralyzed in collecting the weapons," he said.
Abdul Rahman AlAgeli, a security coordinator in the prime minister's office, said the government is "effectively drowning" and that authorities have "not demonstrated any tangible vision" for demobilizing and disarming militias.
Authorities are divided on how to deal with the militias. Some see them as the only hope for providing security for the next few years until formal security services are rebuilt, while others say the militias must be disarmed for stability, he wrote in an online presentation hosted by the Canadian-based Centre for Security Governance think tank.
The problem is, young Libyans in militias have no incentive to hand over their weapons, which are their only source of security and their only "bargaining power vis-a-vis the new political order." If they disarm, they would effectively surrender power to a military and police force they distrust, without guarantees of reforms, he wrote.
"Disarmament in any context is never merely an issue of weapons reduction, but rather a social contract between the people and its government," he wrote.