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Syrian rebels squabble over weapons as biggest shipload arrives from Libya

A Libyan ship carrying the largest consignment of weapons for Syria since the uprising began has docked in Turkey and most of its cargo is making its way to rebels on the front lines, The Times has learnt.

Among more than 400 tonnes of cargo the vessel was carrying were SAM-7 surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), which Syrian sources said could be a game-changer for the rebels.

"This is the largest single delivery of assistance to the rebel fighting units we have received," said Abu Muhammed, a member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who helped to move the shipment from warehouses to the border. "These are things that could change the tide -- if they are used correctly."

The Times was shown the Libyan ship, The Intisaar or The Victory, in the Turkish port of Iskenderun and papers stamped by the port authority by the ship's captain, Omar Mousaeeb, a Libyan from Benghazi and the head of an organisation called the Libyan National Council for Relief and Support, which is supporting the Syrian uprising.

The scale of the shipment, and how it should be disbursed, has sparked a row between the FSA and the Muslim Brotherhood, who took control of the shipment when it arrived in Turkey.

More then 80 per cent of the ship's cargo, which included some humanitarian supplies, has been moved into Syria. Mr Mousaeeb and a group of Libyans who had arrived with the ship said they were preparing to travel with the final load into Syria to ensure it was being distributed.

Video and photos supported the claim that the weapons had arrived and had been moved to the border, the biggest such transit of supplies since the Syrian insurrection to overthrow the Assad regime began in March 2011.

"I can't say to the media all we are doing. I can only talk about the medicine and humanitarian aid," Mr Mousaeeb said. "Our ship carried urgent cargo that the Syrian people need to be successful in their revolution." He said the cargo had been collected in Benghazi after an urgent appeal by Syrian rebels to groups involved with the Libyan revolution.

"They said that the conditions, the lack of weapons and material, was holding back the Syrian revolution from success," Mr Mousaeeb said. "We now see there is even more they need."

Huge weapons caches stockpiled by the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi went missing during the revolution that toppled him. Photographs of empty boxes of SAM-7s were widely circulated as Libyan officials confirmed that more than 5,000 of the missiles had vanished.

Western intelligence agencies have expressed concern that Libyan weapons could make their way to armed groups across the Middle East and Africa, and beyond.

Several previous attempts by Libyan ships to deliver aid to Syrian rebels have failed. In late April, Lebanese authorities seized a large consignment of Libyan weapons, including RPGs and heavy ammunition, from a ship intercepted in the Mediterranean. The ship was attempting to reach the Lebanese port city of Tripoli, a largely Sunni city seen as supportive of the Syrian rebellion against President Assad.

Mr Mousaeeb said that he was thankful when his ship reached Turkey, although it took several weeks to arrange the paperwork for the Turkish port authorities to release the cargo. An official in Hatay province, speaking to The Times on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the ship had docked at Iskenderun port, and its cargo was being handled at a "local level".

Syrian rebels complained that infighting within their ranks had delayed the arrival of the weapons in Syria.

Suleiman Hawari, an Australian-Syrian based in Antakya who works with Mr Mousaeeb, said: "Everyone wanted a piece of the ship. Certain groups wanted to get involved and claim the cargo for themselves. It took a long time to work through the logistics."

Falten Tirsijria and Samar Srewel, two Syrian female activists with the FSA, said there was widespread talk of Syrian groups who allied themselves with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement being given a larger share of the ship's cargo.

"The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to play a larger role in Syria and they knew if they could get their hands on the cargo it would help," Ms Srewel said. "We think that the Libyans were manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood to give them the cargo -- instead of distributing it equally."

Mr Mousaeeb declined to comment on which units had received cargo or how they had arranged its distribution. "The Syrian people need to unite together and stop the fighting between themselves," he said. "We have experience from Libya. Take what we give you and fight with it against Assad."

[Source: By Sheera Frenkel Antakya, The Times, London, 14Sep12]

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