By Paul Mutter
NEW YORK – On March 21, 2011, the New York Times displayed online a photo of several Libyan Army vehicles said to have been destroyed by the multinational coalition enforcing UN Security Council Resolution 1973. Below is the photo:
The tracked vehicle in the background (with several individuals standing atop) strongly resembles the Italian-made “Palmaria” artillery system. Delivery of these weapons began in 1982 – the Oto Melara Palmaria 155-mm Self-Propelled Howitzer. A second photo, from SocialistWorker.org, of a damaged Libyan Army vehicle also greatly resembles the “Palmaria,” as does a third photo from Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera. Finally, a video from Al Jazeera, which was taken in the same area as the New York Times photo was, clearly shows several “Palmarias” destroyed by the UN as they were bombarding the Libyan city of Benghazi, a major rebel stronghold.
Libya ordered 210 of these vehicles from Oto Merala, an Italian defense contractor. Libya is believed to possess 160 “Palmarias” from this order, which was not fulfilled by the time manufacture of the “Palmaria” ceased in the early 1990s.
The status of the 1982 export arrangement has not been commented on by Oto Melara, the Qaddafi government or the Italian government. According to Military-Today.com, production of the vehicle ceased in the early 1990s, so the export order was probably halted when UN Security Council Resolution 748 imposed an international arms embargo on Libya over the Lockerbie Disaster inquiries.
It is not yet known exactly when the sale of “Palmarias” to Libya ceased, though the available evidence suggests that the sale was conducted legally.
However, the possible deployment of these vehicles is yet another unpleasant reminder for Italy, other EU states and even the U.S. of their more recent arms deals with Qaddafi’s regime.
Arms embargoes limited Libya’s ability to purchase advanced weapons systems through the 1980s and 1990s (this probably explains why Libya in known to only possess 160 “Palmarias” when 240 were originally ordered).
A thaw in Western-Libyan came in 2004, when the regime disclosed its nuclear program and assisted in the international sting to dismantle the A. Q. Khan network selling nuclear expertise to non-nuclear states. The arms embargoes were lifted in 2004. Since then, EU members have been engaged in numerous arms deals with Libya, some of them worth several hundred millions Euros.
Italian companies have, since 2004, signed contracts with the Libyan government of Muammar Qaddafi totaling €107.7 million (US$153.2 million). They are by no means alone, though – French, German, Belgian and UK firms have signed arms deals with the regime as well since 2004.
In Italy, Oto Melara has been at the forefront of these post-2004 export deals.
Founded in 1905 as an arm of British armaments manufacturer Vickers, Oto Melara has since 1985 been a member of the multi-billion Euro industrial conglomerate know as the Finmeccanica Group, “Italy’s major defence industry player and one of the biggest aerospace and defence groups operating in Europe.” The Italian-based Finmeccanica Group is partly owned by the Italian government and is a major player in the EU and international arms markets.
Finmeccania has had dealings with the Libyan government in the past: a 2009 fiscal report from the Group mentioned the fulfillment of “the order from Libya to build a major border control system” by some of the firms within the Group.
Oto Melara, the Libyans and the Italian government have not commented on the possibility that the “Palmarias” have been deployed by either Qaddafi loyalists or rebels – or if the UN air strikes have taken out any of the “Palmarias.”
Most of Libya’s heavy weapons, including the artillery that has been used against rebel forces in the past few days, are Soviet-made equipment that the country obtained from the USSR during the Cold War (Russia has been working with Libya to refurbish its ageing Soviet equipment).
The “Palmarias” likely account for 36% of the Libyan Army’s self-propelled artillery complement. Oto Melara’s “Palmarias” are the most numerically significant non-Soviet artillery pieces in Qaddafi’s hands.
The Italian daily Corriere Della Sera, the EU Observer, the UK-blog “Liberal Conspiracy” and several other European media outlets, including the prominent German magazine Der Spiegel, have recently made note of Oto Melara’s (and other firms’ deals) with the Libyan regime.
The impact these disclosures may have on the UN action against Qaddafi’s regime remains to be seen – but disagreements among EU states over this campaign are already apparent.
It has not been confirmed, by the UN or anyone else, that Oto Melara’s “Palmarias” have been deployed by the Libyan Army in the present conflict, but if so, then Oto Melara – and the Italian government, which supports the UN “no-fly zone” – may face some awkward questions over their arms deals with Libya as this conflict continues.