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November 17, 1996
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 267
Pressure Diplomacy

The Libyan Connection

by Milos Vasic

First the New York Times was late in reporting on November 7 that a Russian cargo IL-76 crashed near Belgrade in mid-August, then on November 12 the Washington Times said FR Yugoslavia was working with Libya on the production of medium range ballistic missiles. The point in both articles were violations of the UN arms embargo against Libya.

The fight against international terrorism is one of the main topics of US foreign policy and Colonel Moammar Al Khadaffi is its primary target.

The former Yugoslavia had developed military cooperation with Libya up to 1988 and it exported arms, military equipment and services there. There were some joint projects and attempts to attract Yugoslav military experts to Libya through attractive financial deals. The New York Times quoted Croatian (and former JNA) General Martin Spegelj as saying that the former Yugoslavia sold Libya "all types of small arms ammunition, howitzers and armored vehicles". Yugoslav military experts said Spegelj does not know what he’s talking about. Other NYT sources did no better: Libya was a preferential customer but did not spend 600 million USD a year buying Yugoslav arms as the daily alleged. The Libyans did buy 50 G-2 combat aircraft from the former Yugoslavia but that was in the early 1970s. Yugoslav experts were helping Libya set up its air force academy at the time.

Since the arms embargo was imposed that trade disappeared from the public eye. On the other hand, the 1991 EC embargo on any kind of arms trade with the former Yugoslavia made things even more complicated and the UN sanctions cut the FRY off from the international market. There have been a number of news stories on alleged violations of the ban; most of the violations were arms deliveries to Croatia and Bosnia and those states did not bother to deny the allegations. Then it turned out that Slovenia was one of the leading arms exporters to the forbidden market. The embargo held well in the case of the FRY in terms of both imports and exports. There were very few documented cases: one ship stopped near the Seychelles full of Yugoslav made weapons, one IL-76 with indirect proof it was carrying Yugoslav made airplane spare parts. There were misinformed reports of all kinds from various sources.

The NYT and Washington Times reports are more akin to politics than to real investigative reporting. The NYT cargo aircraft story is so hopelessly late that you have to ask about motives. The only new thing in it is a statement by "an arms dealer in Serbia" that he went to Tunisia in July as part of a group of military industry representatives and then on to Libya to make deals he would not specify. The Washington Times story "borders on science fiction: no one who knows anything about the current capacities of the Yugoslav military industry can’t see how it could be part of a medium range ballistic missile program", one retired general said. "I don’t see how the FRY military industry could contribute to the program when it had never dealt with those missiles because they were never part of our defense concept."

The Washington Times said CIA sources disclosed that Belgrade’s JPL Systems is involved. The company does exist but no one in the military industry has heard of it. One military industry source said "this state can’t even produce multiple launcher grenades let alone ballistic missiles".

The question that remains is: what could the current Yugoslav military industry produce for Khadaffi’s 950 km missiles. Military experts said nothing and added that anything they can produce can be bought at much less cost from less controlled sources. Another question is what would the colonel do if he did manage to produce the missiles. Fire them at targets in Europe as the Washington Times claims? Even Khadaffi isn’t that crazy because NATO’s southern wing could flatten Libya from the air.

This is more a case of politics. First some old piece of news is reheated, CIA sources are quoted and all of it right after the elections in the FRY and the US. The whole thing is disappointing. Diplomacy is expected to be more subtle. The impression is that there is infighting in Washington D.C. with Milosevic, Khadaffi and the UN embargo is used out of convenience. This wouldn’t be the first time: in the spring of 1993, the British press launched a story alleging huge Yugoslav purchases of modern Russian weapons which later proved to be a deliberately launched piece of disinformation with a short-term political goal (compromising Russia). A little real investigative reporting and the whole thing could be avoided.

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