ALGIERS - Algeria has uncovered a large cache of weapons believed to originate from Libya, including dozens of shoulder-held missiles that can be used to shoot down airliners, newspapers said Monday. According to the French-speaking El Watan, 15 SA-24 and 28 SAM-7 Russian-made man-portable surface-to-air missiles were found at a location in the southern desert called In Amenas. The cache, 43km from the Libyan border, also included large amounts of ammunition. The weapons were buried in the sand and discovered at an unspecified date thanks to information provided by smugglers operating in the area.
Such missiles require no specific training to operate and maintain and can be used to shoot down planes or helicopters in mid-air, the newspaper said.
"SAM-7 missiles are a serious threat to civil aviation. They can strike aircrafts flying at an altitude of 11,000 to 13,000 feet," El Watan said, quoting an anonymous official.
"It's a threat to planes landing and taking off from the region's airports, notably the Zarzaitine airport in In Amenas."
Algerian and other officials have repeatedly voiced concern that the chaos in Libya last year had scattered slain leader Moamer Gaddafi's considerable arsenal across the region.
According to the Ennahar daily, the new Libyan government's defence ministry has handed over maps retrieved from the ousted regime's offices showing the location of weapons caches in Algeria.
Gaddafi, who was killed in October shortly after Western-backed rebels toppled his regime, had allegedly hidden away more weapons in Mali and Niger in anticipation for a long battle to reconquer power, the paper said.
Ennahar, quoting another unnamed official, said Algiers has reportedly agreed to hand the weapons back to Libya.
Gaddafi enjoyed the support of Tuareg rebels from Mali and Niger.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is also active in desert regions straddling the borders of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.