The potential proliferation of both conventional and unconventional weapons in Libya after six months of civil war is a "key concern" for the United States, a senior American official said Wednesday.
The conflict that ended Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year rule and sent the former dictator into hiding also threw open the gates to his regime's extensive armories. The country's new leaders, who are struggling to establish a government, have failed to secure many of the weapons caches. Witnesses have watched looters, former rebel fighters or anyone with a truck carry them away.
In another diplomatic development, a member of the Libyan council said late Wednesday that the leaders of Britain and France will visit Tripoli on Thursday. Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and French President Nicolas Sarkozy would be the first heads of government to arrive in Tripoli since Gadhafi fled. Their offices would not comment.
Earlier Wednesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman told reporters in Tripoli that Washington already has people working with Libya's new rulers about the possible proliferation of shoulder-fired missiles, as well as dangerous chemicals like mustard gas.
"This is certainly an issue we are concerned with, the Libyan officials are concerned with, because it poses potential risks not only to Libyans, but to the region as a whole," said Feltman, who was in Tripoli for talks with the former rebels' National Transitional Council.
Journalists and human rights groups have discovered huge weapons depots around Tripoli since the former rebels swept into the capital Aug. 21. Many of the sites are poorly guarded and have already been looted of mines, mortars and even shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles designed to bring down airplanes, helicopters or drones.
The greatest concern, however, is the proliferation of unconventional weapons, such as mustard gas and other chemical agents.
Despite worries about other weapons, Feltman said "to the best of our knowledge" stores of mustard gas "are containerized in bulk form accountable to the OPCW (Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), and we believe from monitoring that they are where they are supposed to be."
Last week, the U.N. chief weapons watchdog said Libya's remaining chemical weapon stockpiles are believed to be secure.
Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the OPCW, said his inspectors left the country in February when the uprising started and will return "when the conditions allow us." He added that he had heard from sources that the "remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons are secured." He did not identify his sources.
In 2004, Gadhafi agreed to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction, and his regime underscored its commitment by using bulldozers to crush 3,300 unloaded bombs that could have been used to deliver chemical weapons.
Feltman voiced strong support for the National Transitional Council, the closest thing Libya's new rulers have to a functioning government, and said the NTC is taking the right steps to bring myriad armed brigades under civilian rule.
"We remain encouraged by growing command and control over security and police forces," he said. "We understand that this is a difficult task."
He also downplayed concerns that Islamists pose a threat to Libya's political future, saying a Libya that is "democratic, based on the rule of law, based on accountability and transparency, is going to have to take into account a lot of different political trends."
"Just based on our discussions with Libyans so far, we aren't concerned that one group is going to be able to dominate the aftermath of what has been a shared struggled by the Libyan people to open a door to a better future," he said.
He said the U.S. also aims to reopen its embassy in the Libyan capital as soon as possible.
Feltman's visit comes as a rebel offensive on Bani Walid, one of three significant remaining loyalist strongholds, has stalled.
Abdel Rahman al-Kazmi, a field commander in Bani Walid for anti-Gadhafi forces, said his fighters are preparing for a new push on the town in the coming days.
"Our strategy is to advance slowly to give a chance to the families to leave," he said. "That way, Gadhafi loyalists will become afraid because the city will be empty and they will have no support."
Many families fleeing Bani Walid have described a worsening situation in they town, saying there is no electricity or water, and shops are running low on food.
The former rebels launched a two-pronged assault on Bani Walid on Friday but have run into fierce resistance from Gadhafi loyalists. Pro-Gadhafi forces have placed snipers on rooftops and used mortars and Grad rockets to hit revolutionary forces.
"The snipers are the worst challenge," al-Kazmi said. "We don't know how many there are."
Gadhafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, pledged in a phone call to a TV station that loyalists will retake the cities they have lost. "We have prepared ourselves to go into a holy jihad for years if need be," he told al-Rai TV, a Syrian station that often broadcasts messages from Gadhafi. Ibrahim did not indicate where he or Gadhafi are or whether they are together.
Associated Press writer Hadeel al-Shalchi contributed to this report from Wadi Dinar, Libya.