British forces in Libya are battling to prevent thousands of deadly surface-to-air missiles ending up in "the wrong hands", a military chief has said.
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 of 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.
The allied military action that began on March 17 to protect Libyan civilians will finish next Monday after a unanimous vote by the UN Security Council yesterday.
Nato pointed out, however, that member states can offer military commitment to Libya on an individual basis.