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Top Egyptian general to visit Libyan leaders

By and Alice Fordham,

CAIRO — In his first major trip abroad as acting head of state, Egypt’s top general is scheduled to fly to Libya on Monday for talks with interim leaders there on the cross-border flow of weapons and the return of Egyptian laborers who fled by the thousands during the Libyan revolution.

Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi’s expected meeting in Tripoli with Libya’s Transitional National Council highlights the important relationship between the two nations in transition and their shared concerns over the proliferation of weapons across the porous border from Libya into Egypt.

“Such a big visit is more than overdue,” an Egyptian Foreign Affairs Ministry official said Sunday. “We cannot have stability on our borders without cooperation.”

Tantawi and Egypt’s other ruling generals have drawn criticism at home for what opponents say has been their reluctance to move toward democratic rule. But Tantawi’s trip was widely seen here as essential to repairing economic cooperation between the two countries and not as an indication that the general was trying to expand his authority.

“He is making his visit as the head of the military council, which is the institution managing Egypt’s transitional phase,” said Hassan Abu Taleb, an analyst at al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, adding that the trip did not amount to Tantawi trying to assert presidential powers.

About 1 million Egyptians were working in the oil-rich North African nation when the uprising against the late authoritarian leader, Moammar Gaddafi, began in February. Egyptians have depended heavily on the labor market in Libya for work, and remittances from Libya have been a vital part of the Egyptian economy, which is now faltering.

“We have hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who want to return to Libya to participate in rebuilding the country,” said the Egyptian Foreign Affairs Ministry official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “Libya needs manpower for reconstruction, and we are the primary candidate.”

Tantawi is to travel to Libya with eight cabinet members, including the ministers of foreign affairs, electricity and labor. He is scheduled to meet with the head of the transitional council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, as well as the Libyan prime minister, Abdurrahim el-Keib, and other Libyan cabinet ministers.

Other than a visit to Saudi Arabia in October to pay respects after the death of Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, this is Tantawi’s first official visit to a foreign country since the generals took control of Egypt last February. Egypt’s foreign minister visited Libya in September, and the head of the Libyan governing council visited Egypt in late October.

Tantawi is expected to raise concerns about weapons that are moving into Egypt from Libya, Egyptian military and foreign ministry officials said. The weapons have traveled mainly through Bedouin smuggling operations, and many end up in the mostly lawless lands of the northern Sinai Peninsula, military officials have said. The Bedouin routes supply weapons, food and consumer goods to both Egyptians and Palestinians. Of chief concern — to Egyptian officials as well as neighboring Israelis — are surface-to-air missile systems.

Late last year, Sinai’s clandestine market included rockets and antiaircraft guns smuggled from Libya, according to military officials and smugglers interviewed in the fall. Egyptian security officials have seized ammunition, explosives, automatic weapons and caches of heavier arms, including Russian-made Strela-2 and Strela-3 heat-seeking, shoulder-fired ­antiaircraft missiles. In recent months the smuggling has decreased, according to a brigadier general in the Egyptian army who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

“We want to stop it and to have more coordination,” the officer said.

Loose weapons have emerged as one of Libya’s main security problems since the abrupt collapse of Gaddafi’s security forces. Libyan weapons teams working with experts from the United States have so far recovered 5,000 missiles known as manpads (man-portable air-defense systems), which can pose a serious threat to aircraft, according to a State Department official. But it is impossible to know how many remain missing, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Germany have contributed more than $5.1 million to help Libyans with technical support to secure surface-to-air missile systems, the official said. Others, including NATO and the European Union, are working to help identify areas with unsecured weapons.

The United States has also been working with Egypt as well as other Libyan neighbors to “reduce proliferation across the region,” the State Department official said.

Fordham reported from Tripoli, Libya. Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb in Cairo also contributed to this report.

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