The Lutfallah II Arms-Smuggling Scandal
Franklin Lamb, Counterpunch, May 4 2012
The still unfolding Lutfallah II weapons running misadventure, in which a claimed Syrian-owned vessel, registered in Sierra Leone but apparently flying the Egyptian flag, was detained off the Lebanese port of Batoun by the Lebanese Army Marines because it was sailing too high in the water and appeared “suspicious” and was found to contain 300,000 lb of weapons, may erupt unpredictably with serious political consequences for the region. Hassan Diab is a Libyan who has been working with a group of lawyers preparing a case against NATO to be filed with the International Criminal Court. Hassan and three of his friends actually saw the ship Lutfallah II being loaded in Benghazi, Libya. Hassan claims that it is well-known at the docks that Qatar and Saudi Arabia control a total of five warehouses in the area of Benghazi & Misrata, and supplied the weapons and money to hire the Lutfallah II container vessel. Libyans in the area are reporting that the intercepted arms are from Gadaffi stockpiles left over from NATO’s Libya campaign and also from the Qatar-Saudi six-month weapons pipelines into Libya. When NATO declared a cessation of its bombing on Oct 31 2011, the scramble for weapons began and Qatar stored and purchased whatever weapons came to its own notice or that of various militias who were willing to do business. Libyans and foreign dock workers at Benghazi Port who observed the Lutfallah II being loaded, saw three containers filled with 150 tons of weapons put onboard, although the initial plan, according to the owner of the boat, was to ship as many as 15 containers. It is estimated that they would have carried more than 2000 tons of weapons.
A Lebanese judicial source confirmed to me and also to the Beirut Daily As-Safir that the Lutfallah II shipment was funded by two Syrian businessmen living in Saudi Arabia. In addition, the ship’s captain is Syrian, as is the man who claimed ownership of the shipment. All are affiliated with the Syrian opposition and all are seeking regime change in Syria. According to a late-breaking report, all have been arrested and remain in custody, despite claims that they thought the cargo was general merchandise. Libya does not export anything much but its light crude oil, and the Lutfallah II is clearly no oil tanker. Crew members of the container ship are facing trial on charges of illegal gun-running. The owner reportedly told his interrogators:
It would be against Lebanese law and international maritime law for me to demand to examine the contents of the containers.
The law is exactly the opposite in both: international law establishes the owner’s right to inspect cargo being carried on his ships for hazardous or contraband cargo, and maritime law clearly mandates his responsibility to do so. Likewise, his insurance company. The US-Saudi-backed Future Movement was not involved in the arms shipment, according to party official Mustafa Allouch. However, he later told Lebanon’s OTV:
The Syrian people have the right to find the appropriate means to defend themselves.
The Free Syrian Army has denied any links to the weapons-carrying vessel. Hezbollah official Ammar Musawi praised the Lebanese army for its seizure of the Syria-bound illegal arms shipment, saying:
For the sake of Lebanon’s stability, I urge our authorities to exert greater effort to prevent Lebanon from turning into an arena through which the tools of crime cross into Syria, and a conduit of destruction toward its neighbor, as the involvement of some Lebanese in fueling the situation in Syria will have negative repercussions on Lebanon.
On May 2, Syrian ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdel-Karim, following a meeting with Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour, accused Gulf countries including Qatar and Saudi Arabia of being behind the Syria-bound arms shipments, saying:
The ship was bound for the Syrian opposition; the political and security leaderships in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries are behind these acts, which undermine the security of Syria, Lebanon and the region.
Many questions remain in need of answers. A few of the more obvious ones would be: Who funded the shipment discovered in the cargo bay of the Lutfallah II? Who had custody over the original twelve containers of what was planned, according to the jailed owner, as a shipment of over two million tons of “general merchandise”? Who supplied the weapons and from which warehouse locations in Libya were they taken? Who controls the warehouses? Who made the decision to hold back the twelve containers of the original contract and why? Where are the twelve containers? Who prepared the ship’s manifest? What was the involvement, if any, of the Syrian owner of the Lutfallah II? Why was the Lutfallah II not searched at the port of Alexandria as well as in Turkey, where it also docked? Why was it given ‘green light passage’ by Israel and UNIFIL? What was the activity observed by eyewitnesses on the Lutfallah II while it was docked in Turkey? Which if any Lebanese politicians and political parties were involved? Who was to meet and take custody of the shipment once it arrived at the Tripoli, Lebanon dock? Which land routes into Syria were to be used following the offloading of the cargo at Tripoli Port? I would have thought that one or more journalists might want to book a flight to Benghazi, Libya, to follow the money.