By Christian Lowe
MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Militias outside the control of Libya's central government are holding vast stores of tanks, rockets and small arms in the city of Misrata, an arsenal that will test the ability of the country's new rulers to assert their authority.
A Reuters team gained rare access to militia warehouses in Misrata and counted thousands of boxes of arms and ammunition, most of it seized from forces loyal to ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi and hauled back to the city in trucks.
The militias, which were formed to fight Gaddafi's rule and profess loyalty to the interim leaders of the National Transitional Council (NTC), say they will hand over the weapons once a new national army is created.
But there is no timetable for that and in the meantime the weapons give Misrata more military might than the fragile government in Tripoli, an advantage the Misrata militias are likely to try to convert into political power.
"The government does not have a monopoly on force in the country," said Geoff Porter, a north Africa expert who has testified on Libya in the U.S. Congress "Without it, the state's ability to function is jeopardized."
"All of the militias are amply armed and the government has no recourse but to urge and cajole them to give up their weapons," he said.
Over two days, Reuters reporters visited four weapons stores operated by three of the city's militia brigades.
This offered a cross-section of the weapons in the city but represented only a fraction of the total: Misrata has six brigades, with between them more than 200 units. Most brigades have several weapons stores in different locations.
The weapons that could be seen included, according to a Reuters count, 38 tanks, nine self-propelled guns, 16 field guns, 536 Russian-made Grad rockets and 13 truck-mounted Grad launchers, 2480 mortar rounds and 202 artillery shells.
Among the other items were 21 missile pods cannibalized from helicopters, and about 10 boxes of what appeared to be French-made warheads for helicopter-fired anti-tank missiles.
In addition, Reuters reporters saw 18 shipping containers which local commanders said contained ammunition. It was not possible to examine what was inside.
The arsenals were dotted around the outskirts of Misrata, a city that lies on the Mediterranean coast about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli.
Heavy artillery was kept at a site that used to be a supply base for oil company Petro-Canada. Another unit stored ammunition in a former Pepsi soft drink warehouse. One brigade parked dozens of tanks next to its commander's beach house.
International concern about the proliferation of weapons in Libya has focused on the risk that arms could find there way into the hands of groups such as al Qaeda's north Africa branch.
The chances of this happening in Misrata seem small: the city's militias have little sympathy with Islamists, they are tightly disciplined, and all the arsenals visited by Reuters were well guarded.
GUNS FOR INFLUENCE
The significance of Misrata's huge stock of weapons lies instead in the leverage it gives the city in the contest -- so far largely peaceful -- for power and influence in the new Libya.
Misrata, Libya's third-biggest city, was the scene of the biggest and bloodiest battle in the seven-month war against Gaddafi. Its forces are among the most powerful of the dozens of militias across Libya that emerged out of the fighting.
"The brigades' loyalties appear to lie first and foremost with their towns and cities, rather than the NTC," wrote Wolfram Lacher, a North Africa expert.
"Whether and how quickly they will demobilize and refrain from using their military power as a means of gaining political influence remains to be seen," he wrote in the Middle East Policy Council journal.
Misrata's arsenal is the product of a systematic operation, carried out in the final weeks of the conflict against Gaddafi's rule, to sweep up weapons from stores elsewhere and bring them back to the city.
Mahmoud Askutri, a businessman who organized Misrata's Marsa brigade, said 430 tanks were recovered intact when the city's fighters fought their way into the town of Zlitan, to the west of Misrata.
Fighters from the city then pushed further West, stripping weapons from captured Gaddafi bases between their city and Tripoli.
"The Misrata fighters came through here and took all the weapons," a local militia member at a checkpoint about 50 km east of the capital said, days after Gaddafi's forces fled Tripoli.
Misrata also seized weapons from Tripoli itself. Askutri said his men took the arms to stop them being used by Gaddafi loyalists or what he described as extremists.
"We had to be careful," he said. "There were mines and anti-amour missiles and this (leaving them in Tripoli) would have been a great danger to the stability of Libya."
Soon after, Misrata brigades switched their focus to the east, towards the pro-Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte.
Reuters journalists in Wadi Garif, at the start of September, saw Misrata brigades clear out a vast arsenal at a military compound abandoned by Gaddafi's forces.
The militias loaded the weapons into pick-up trucks, took them back to their forward bases, and transferred them into larger trucks to be transported back to Misrata. One unit filled a furniture truck up to the roof with weapons.
The haul included mortars, 106mm artillery guns, Belgian-designed FN rifles, ammunition, and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Much of it was still wrapped in the greaseproof paper in which it was shipped from the factory.
WAITING FOR AN ARMY
A military spokesman for the NTC in Tripoli said he believed the Misrata brigades would honor their pledge to hand over their weapons to the central government.
"Up to now we don't have a chief of staff," said the spokesman, Ahmed Bani. "Once we have an chief of staff for our army, then they will transfer (their weapons)."
"I know my people well. They are optimistic. They will obey the orders of the NTC because all of us love Libya. We paid a lot for our freedom."
In Misrata, the brigade commanders who spoke to Reuters say they will amalgamate their units into the national army, and hand over their weapons, as soon as that army is created.
Misrata brigades showed their willingness by giving 500 light arms to the interior ministry in October, according to a United Nations report.
But no one seems to know for sure when the national army will start functioning. In Misrata, there is no evidence yet that the defense ministry has drawn up any plans for the handover.
Even once inside the national army, it is clear that the Misrata brigades expect to retain a degree of autonomy.
In the absence of instructions from Tripoli, they have drawn up a plan to form three Misrata divisions with the national army and they have already started to appoint commanders.
Mohammed El-Zein, leader of Misrata's Thobactis brigade, which oversees field guns and Grad rocket launchers at the converted oil company base, said he would command one of the three divisions.
He said preparations had already started to transfer the weapons to national army warehouses. But they will not go far. Asked where the warehouses would be, he said: "In the suburbs of Misrata."
(Additional reporting by Taha Zargoun and Ali Shuaib; Editing by Maria Golovnina)