British forces in Libya are battling to prevent thousands of deadly surface-to-air missiles ending up in "the wrong hands", a military chief said today.
Former dictator Muammar Gaddafi is known to have invested in a large supply of man-portable air defence systems, known as manpads, and it is now feared they could flood the black market following the collapse of his regime.
Air Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, Britain's commander of joint operations, warned there was "always a risk of proliferation of such weapons" and admitted it was not known exactly how many were out there.
Addressing the question of what arms could be used or sold on by the wrong people, he said: "We're still trying to work that out and get to the bottom of what might be there.
"We knew at the start the Gaddafi regime had invested heavily in manpads. The proliferation of portable weapons that are lethal is almost strategic in itself.
"We have to be careful about in whose hands these end up."
Britain would do whatever it could to "get these wicked things out the way", he added.
"We're on the case and we're working with the Libyan government to do something about it because these weapons in the wrong hands are lethal."
The possibility of Taliban or al Qaida members getting hold of the missiles was not ruled out.
"As far as which group or who might get them - the whole proliferation of arms is a pretty murky business," Air Marshal Peach said.
"We're taking this really seriously and will do what we can, working with our allies, to make sure this risk is not materialised."
Manpads are commonly sought after by insurgent groups because of their effectiveness against attack helicopters and other aircraft used in counter-insurgency campaigns.
They are also easy to carry around and relatively straightforward to use.
Speaking at a Ministry of Defence briefing on the Libya operation, Air Marshal Peach indicated that Britain's role in the north African country following the rebels' victory was yet to be determined.
The question of whether British military advisers will remain there was a "policy question to be debated by the National Security Council", he said.
He went on: "It's very much now governed by the Libyan government and their request to us, which is not yet clear.
"We don't know yet what they want."
Britain is currently continuing to support operations while awaiting direction from Nato's governing body, the North Atlantic Council, Air Marshal Peach said.
The aim of British forces throughout their involvement in Libya was to minimise the number of civilian casualties, he went on.
But he added: "To say there were none would be a big call".
Overall, however, he offered a resoundingly positive assessment of the mission.
This had begun with the evacuation of 1,400 people from the country and was followed by the implementation of a no-fly zone by Britain and other members of a "coalition of the willing" before control of the operation was handed to Nato.
The Royal Navy meanwhile played what Air Marshal Peach described as a "key role" in the maritime embargo that was also imposed.
Celebrating the successful deployment of British arms, he said: "The use of some of our weapons has been world class."
The use of Brimstone missiles in particular helped keep levels of collateral damage low, he said, stressing also that "at no point have any British servicemen targeted individuals".
He said: "The tactics throughout were to use force with precision and discipline."
He praised Italy for its role in hosting the Royal Air Force on an air base in the south of the country, described the support of the US as "really impressive" and noted the "close and growing relationship" Britain had enjoyed with France during the campaign.
Meanwhile, Britain has been able to keep its main effort in Afghanistan well-supported, Air Marshal Peach added.
The Ministry of Defence said it had been working since last month to try to prevent the proliferation of manpads.
A spokesman said: "A team of British experts has been working alongside Libyan and US colleagues since September to identify, secure and destroy man-portable air defence systems.
"Over 800 bunkers have already been inspected by teams across Libya and the UK has provided around £1.5 million to support this vital counter-proliferation work."