The United Arab Emirates denied on Tuesday that it had supplied a Libyan armed group with powerful American-made missiles, after a Democratic senator warned that Washington could halt all arms sales to the United Arab Emirates.
On Friday the State Department said it had opened an investigation into how the weapons — four American-made Javelin armor-piercing missiles, normally sold only to close American allies — had found their way into a cache of arms discovered last week at a rebel base south of Tripoli.
Markings on the missile crates indicated they were part of a consignment sold to the United Arab Emirates in 2008, The New York Times reported. If confirmed, the transfer of those weapons to Libya would constitute “a serious violation of United States law,” Senator Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday.
“You are surely aware that if these allegations prove true you may be obligated by law to terminate all arms sales to the United Arab Emirates,” Mr. Menendez wrote.
Any transfer of American arms would also breach a United Nations arms embargo on Libya in place since 2011.
Later on Tuesday the Emirati Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a short statement to say that it “denied ownership of weapons found in the Republic of Libya” and supported United Nations-led efforts to broker a political solution to the conflict in Libya.
An Emirati spokesman did not respond to a query about which weapons the statement referred to, but a senior Emirati official familiar with the matter said it concerned the Javelins.
The American-made missiles found in Gheryan, 50 miles south of Tripoli, are not from the United Arab Emirates, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He declined to offer further details.
Western officials and some analysts responded to the Emirati denial with a degree of skepticism, noting that they have been repeatedly accused of breaching the arms embargo in favor of their ally, Gen. Khalifa Hifter.
General Hifter’s forces have been fighting to capture Tripoli, the capital, since April. They suffered a major setback last week with the loss of their base at Gheryan.
“The Emiratis are clearly stepping up their involvement as Hifter is floundering on the ground,” said Tarek Megerisi of the European Council on Foreign Relations, who recently published a paper on Libya’s war. “They feel obliged to make sure he wins to protect their investment.”
In 2017, United Nations investigators said the United Arab Emirates had supplied General Hifter with attack helicopters, about 100 armored personnel carriers and armed Chinese drones. The United Arab Emirates declined to comment to the investigators.
As General Hifter stepped up his assault on Tripoli in recent months, the United Arab Emirates has supplied his forces with more powerful weapons, including a Russian-made surface-to-air missile system known as the SA-22 Greyhound, a senior Western official said.
Turkey is supporting the other side in the fight, sending armed vehicles and combat drones to help the unity government.
Mr. Menendez told Mr. Pompeo that the apparent transfer of Javelin missiles to Libya was “particularly alarming” because it came after the Trump administration bypassed Congress to approve arms sales worth $8.1 billion to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In a statement, a State Department spokesman said the United States is seeking additional information on the missiles.