The radio on board HMCS Charlottetown crackled with the news. The Canadian warship’s boarding party had struck pay dirt — a vessel in international waters loaded with weapons and ammunition trying to sneak into Libya.
It was May of 2011, three months into Libya’s civil war, and NATO had set up a ring of 20 warships to enforce a United Nations arms embargo. No weapons, military supplies or ammunition were to reach Libya, either for troops loyal to the country’s leader, Moammar Gadhafi, or for rebels now fighting to overthrow him.
“There are loads of weapons and munitions, more than I thought,” the boarding officer radioed back to Charlottetown’s commander, Craig Skjerpen. “From small ammunition to 105 howitzer rounds and lots of explosives.”
The Libyan rebels operating the ship openly acknowledged they were delivering the weapons to their forces in Misrata.
Skjerpen radioed NATO headquarters for instructions. The response was swift: let the ship sail on so the crew could deliver their deadly cargo.
A NATO senior officer, Italian Vice-Admiral Rinaldo Veri, had boasted just weeks earlier that the alliance’s blockade HAD closed the door on the flow of arms into Libya.
Not quite. While the UN embargo was clearly aimed at preventing the delivery of weapons both to Gadhafi and those fighting him, NATO looked the other way when it came to the rebels. Hundreds of tonnes of ammunition and arms breezed through the blockade, exposing what critics say was Canada and NATO’s real motive during the Libyan war — regime change under the guise of protecting civilians.
Qatar, one of two Arab nations to take part in the NATO-led mission, supplied rebels French-made Milan anti-tank missiles, with deliveries made by sea. The country also gave them a variety of trucks and communications gear, while Qatari advisers slipped into Libya to provide training.
Egypt shipped assault rifles and ammunition, with U.S. support.
Poland supplied anti-tank missiles and military vehicles.
Canada also didn’t sit on the sidelines when it came to supplying hardware to the rebels.
Five months into the war, Canadian government officials set in motion a plan to provide surveillance drones to rebels so they could better attack Libyan troops, day or night.
The Aeryon Scout Micro-Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, designed and built in Waterloo, Ont., is a small spy drone that fits in a suitcase.
The Canadian government put Aeryon in contact with the rebel’s National Transitional Council, while Zariba Security Corp., a private security firm in Ottawa, was to make the delivery. In July, the $100,000 drone was delivered to the rebels by Charles Barlow, president of Zariba and a former Canadian Forces officer. He took an 18-hour boat ride from Malta to the NTC training facility in Misrata, sailing without problems through NATO’s blockade.
Barlow showed the rebels how to fly the drone, using it to identify a Libyan military position, and left shortly after.
About a month before Barlow’s trip, French aircraft, unchallenged by NATO fighters enforcing a no-fly zone, had dropped an estimated 40 tonnes of ammunition and weapons, including anti-tank missiles, to rebels fighting southwest of Tripoli.
The French, like the other nations pumping weapons into the hands of opposition forces, justified their actions in a response that seemed straight from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. There was indeed an arms embargo in place, they acknowledged, but there was also another UN resolution allowing for all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack.
So the assault rifles and anti-tank missiles being dropped to rebel troops weren’t for war. They were, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe claimed, “weapons of self-defence” and because of that they didn’t violate the UN resolution.
In the case of the order to HMCS Charlottetown to allow the rebel arms ship to proceed, NATO would later justify that action in a similarly convoluted fashion. Technically the rebel ship the Canadian frigate stopped was violating the arms embargo since it was in international waters and was sailing into Libya. But NATO claimed that since the ship was travelling from one location in Libya to another in the country, there was no violation. The weapons had come from Libya and were just being moved through international waters.
To this day, the official line from the Canadian government and military officers is that neither NATO nor Canada took sides in the war, although some occasionally let down their guard to outline what actually took place.