By Jessica Donati, Ghaith Shennib and Firas Bosalum
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Abdul Basit Haroun says he is behind some of the biggest shipments of weapons from Libya to Syria, which he delivers on chartered flights to neighboring countries and then smuggles over the border.
After fleeing Libya in his 20s, Haroun established himself as a property developer in Manchester. After about two decades in the British city, he returned to Libya in 2011 to fight in the revolution, where he became a prominent rebel commander.
He says he sends aid and weapons to help Syrians achieve the freedom he fought for during the Libyan revolution.
The first consignment of weapons was smuggled into Syria aboard a Libyan ship delivering aid last year, Haroun says, but now containers of arms are flown “above board” into neighboring countries on chartered flights.
In the months since Haroun began his work, arming the rebels has moved up the international agenda, with Saudi Arabia equipping them with missiles, and Washington also planning to send weapons to the men fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
Haroun spoke to Reuters over coffee and homemade cake late at night at his villa on the outskirts of Benghazi, the eastern city that began the uprising that deposed Muammar Gaddafi.
His son, a young man who spoke English with a Manchester accent, offered help with weapon prices and other details.
Haroun was upset the West had not intervened in Syria, as it did in Libya and said the opportunity to avert a larger war had been missed.
“Even when the war in Syria ends, there will be another war in region; Sunni against Shia. At the beginning, there was just Assad to bring down … now Hezbollah, Iran are involved.”
A Reuters reporter was taken to an undisclosed location in Benghazi to see a container of weapons being prepared for delivery to Syria. It was stacked with boxes of ammunition, rocket launchers and various types of light and medium weapons.
Haroun and an associate said it was being stored on the unnamed base to keep the arms safe.
“They are not partners with me in the transfer of weapons, but I store the weapons here because it is a safe place,” said Haroun’s associate, who asked not to be named because it could negatively impact his relief work.
Haroun says he can collect weapons from around the country and arrange for them to be delivered to the Syrian rebels because of his contacts in Libya and abroad.
“They know we are sending guns to Syria,” Haroun said. “Everyone knows.”
In Libya, he helps the government with state security, according to interior ministry spokesman Majdi al-Ourfi.
He also has credentials as a commander from the days of the revolution. “Abdel Basit Haroun was with us in the February 17 brigade before he quit to form his own brigade,” said fellow brigade commander Ismail Salabi.
His weapon dealing activities appear to be well known, at least in Libya’s east.
Senior officials in Libya’s army and government told Reuters they backed supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition, while a member of Libya’s congress said Haroun was doing a great job of helping the Syrian rebels.
“After the end of the war of liberation, he became involved in supporting the Syrian revolution… sending aid and weapons to the Syrian people,” said assembly member Tawfiq Al-Shehabi.
“He does a good job of supporting the Syrian revolution.”
Another official, who declined to be identified, said he had allowed weapons to leave the port of Benghazi for Syria.
“We don’t stop them because we know what the Syrian people are going through,” he said, referring to weapons being smuggled out of the eastern port. He did not say who was behind the shipments he allowed through.
A Libyan army commander, Hamed Belkhair, said that he was aware of colleagues in the military who had met Syrian rebels and agreed to help them by supplying arms.
“The weapons are not supplied to extremists, but only to the Free Syrian Army,” said Belkhair.
A United Nations Panel report dated February this year also backs Haroun’s assertions that weapons smuggling to Syria from Libya is widely known about.
“The Syrian Arab Republic has presented a prominent destination for some Libyan fighters and Libyan military materiel,” the writers say.
Transfers have been organized under the supervision, or with the consent, of a range of actors in Libya and the Syrian Arab Republic.”
The report adds: “the significant size of some shipments and the logistics involved suggest that representatives of the Libyan local authorities might have at least been aware of the transfers, if not actually directly involved.”
Haroun runs the operation with an associate, who helps him coordinate about a dozen people in Libyan cities collecting weapons for Syria. Both said several flights had been chartered to Jordan or Turkey to deliver weapons that were then transferred over the border.
Haroun’s associate, who also runs a relief organization, said that about 28 metric tons of weapons had been delivered by air so far.
“We are doing two great things,” Haroun said. “The first is that we are taking guns off the street. The mission is so popular that we get 50 percent discounts on weapons.”
Haroun added that some were also donated free, particularly heavy items that families had little use for after the war.
His son helped him with weapon prices on the streets. For example, a C5 general purpose machine gun was about $25, while rocket propelled grenade launchers were nearer $120.
“If we had the money we could collect all the guns from the streets, but it currently takes about 4-5 months to get enough for a delivery,” Haroun said, adding that funding came from local businesses and Syrians abroad.
They deliver the weapons to the Free Syrian Army because they are best placed to know which rebel group is most in need of supplies, Haroun said. The FSA delivered the arms to the front line and Haroun said he no control over which groups received the weapons.
They preferred to send weapons rather than fighters, because of the risk of trouble returning to Libyan soil.
Both he and his associate traveled with their first successful delivery in August over the Syrian border to ensure it reached its destination. They were appalled by the horrors witnessed there.
“Anyone who saw what I did in Syria would do the same thing,” said the associate.
“The water is so polluted you wouldn’t even wash your hands with it. People have no clothes. I saw three births with no doctors present. People are dying without medication.”
A Reuters reporter who visited locations supplied by Haroun in Syria a month or two after the shipment was said to have arrived said the area was awash in weapons of Libyan origin.
In addition, a number of journalists traveled with Haroun.
“I was with Haroun on the ship (Al Entisar)… And I know they transfer arms to Syria,” said Areesh Saeed, a Libyan journalist.
That aid shipment met only a fraction of the people’s needs, the associate said. The next consignment due to sail in June would be bigger, at close to 2,000 metric tons.
“The next shipment will be only aid. And if we were planning on taking weapons, we wouldn’t tell you,” he added.
He did, however, produce iPad footage that he said showed an earlier consignment being prepared. In the clip, a group of men were loading rockets and boxes of ammunition out of a small truck and into a container.
Haroun’s associate gestured at the person filming to turn the phone off, while a man on the truck grinned at the camera.
Air deliveries are preferred because of the risks of interception in east Mediterranean waters; their first shipment was seized off the coast of Lebanon.
Both Haroun and his associate said the second shipment was successful because it took a longer route, reaching Turkey in August 2012 with weapons hidden among about 460 metric tons of aid destined for Syrian refugees.
The UN report appears to confirm at least some of Haroun’s account, in its investigation in the case of a second vessel, the Al Entisar.
The Panel investigated a news report that a Libyan ship with around 400 metric tons of aid had supplied Syrian rebels with “the largest consignment of weapons … since the uprising”.
The Panel found that the loading port was Benghazi, that the exporter was “a relief organization based in Benghazi” and the consignee was the same Islamic foundation based in Turkey that Haroun said had helped with documentation.
“The Panel also spoke to the head of the Benghazi-based relief organization, who organized the shipment. He confirmed that the cargo had been loaded on to Al Entisar… denying that any weapons had been on board,” the report says.
Haroun’s associate says he told authorities only aid was on board and denies anyone knew about the weapons. Haroun contradicts him on this point.
(additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut; writing by Jessica Donati; editing by Giles Elgood)