The Tyrant of Belarus: Gaddafi's Friend Far, Far to the North?

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Andrey Stasevich / Belta / AFP

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, left, and Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko walk past a Belarusian honor guard in Minsk, Nov. 2, 2008

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the teetering despot of Libya, is losing friends fast. Many of his military commanders have abandoned him. A good portion of the country has been seized by the opposition. The U.N. has hit him with crippling sanctions, and even his beloved Ukrainian nurse has flown home. But it seems there is still at least one ally willing to give Gaddafi what he needs to regain control — guns, ammo, maybe some mercenaries — and that ally is Belarus, otherwise known as Europe's last genuine dictatorship.

According to Hugh Griffiths, a prominent expert on the weapons trade, a flurry of planes was flying between the two countries just as the international community was preparing an arms embargo against Gaddafi. The embargo, finally imposed on Sunday by the U.N. Security Council, may have come too late to make a difference. According to Griffiths, several shipments from Belarus look to have slipped into Libya, most likely carrying arms. "So by the time [the U.N. sanctions] were put in place, the horse had already bolted," says Griffiths, who works for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an independent think tank that works closely with the U.N.

The first suspicious flight, Griffiths says, took off on Feb. 15, the first day of Libya's mass unrest. A Russian-made Il-76 cargo plane departed that day from Baranovichi airport, the site of a major weapons stockpile that Belarus inherited from the former Soviet Union, and landed in Sebha, a Gaddafi stronghold in the southern Libyan desert that is out of reach of Western radar systems. It is one of the few airports still under Gaddafi's control.

In the past two weeks, according to Griffiths, a Libyan Falcon 900, the favored aircraft in the Gaddafi family's personal fleet, has also made flights in and out of Belarus. What they were carrying remains a mystery — some media reports have said they were packed with gold and diamonds for the Belarusian leader — but the main asset Gaddafi would need right now in return is not artillery or war planes. "Everyone had been supplying him with weaponry for years," Griffiths told TIME in an interview Tuesday. "What he was short of was guys in uniform to use it."

According to recent reports, there have indeed been men who look European among the allegedly African mercenaries battling it out with Gaddafi's rivals. On Feb. 25, witnesses to these clashes told CNN that some of the mercenaries were rumored to be from Belarus. The government of President Alexander Lukashenko dismissed these reports as "speculation," saying they were part of an "information attack" on Belarus — but the claims of his country's support for African tyrants then kept flooding in.

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