Calm returns to Tripoli after clashes between militia and the Libyan army

A paratrooper holding a Libyan flag glides during a military parade by the Liberation Army to commemorate the establishment of a Libyan National Army in Benghazi. (Reuters)

Calm returned to Tripoli on Sunday after clashes between an armed brigade and the land forces of the Libyan National Army contesting control over the capital’s airport late Saturday.

The clashes left three men from the Libyan army dead and one fighter was killed while three others from al-Zintan brigade were wounded.

The gunbattle broke out overnight when armed men in the vehicles of Libya’s new national army tried to take control of Tripoli’s international airport from militia men, the commander of the airport’s security force said on Sunday.

On Sunday, the road leading to the airport was opened.

Who is the culprit?

It was the latest in a series of clashes between the rival militias which, in the absence of a fully-functioning central government, have wielded real power on the streets in Libya since a revolt forced out former leader Muammar Qaddafi.

Mukhtar al-Akhdar, commander of a militia unit from Zintan, south-west of Tripoli, which controls the international airport, told Reuters a convoy of vehicles approached a checkpoint about 3 km from the airport.

He said the armed men in the convoy said they had come to take over security, and a gunfight then broke out.

Meanwhile, an army official Samy Kamuka said the firefight erupted when a group of former rebels of the Zintan brigade clashed with former rebels from Tripoli.

But a fighter from the Zintan brigade said it was members of the national army who attacked his unit near the airport.

“There were clashes between thwars (revolutionaries) from Tripoli and thwars from Zintan (brigade) to take control of the airport,” Kamuka, who works in the administration department, told AFP.

“The clashes were next to the airport but not in the airport. According to our information, two are wounded,” he said.

According to AFP, the airport is currently under the control of the Zintan brigade whose members are holding toppled leader Muammar Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam after having captured him last month.

A member of the Zintan brigade, Abu Bakr al-Ahrash, told an AFP reporter near the airport that “three cars from the national army arrived today at the checkpoint usually manned by Zintan thwars” on the road to the facility.

“They confiscated two pick-up trucks loaded with anti-aircraft guns. They tried to take control of the checkpoint. They wounded two of our fighters and arrested two others,” he said.

Problem of armed militia

Tripoli city council has given militias from other towns until Dec. 20 to return home. The council chief said if they do not meet the deadline, all roads in the city will be blocked, except to defense and interior ministry vehicles.

Most militia leaders have publicly said that they are ready to hand themselves over to central institutions as soon as they receive the order to do so from the NTC.

But the national police and army are only just beginning to function. Some of the militias believe if they withdraw, that will leave a vacuum that will be filled by rival militias, in particular the powerful Islamists.

Tripoli international airport has already been a flashpoint for tensions. Late last month, armed men from Zintan briefly detained Abdel Hakim Belhadj, the Islamist leader of one of Tripoli’s most powerful militias, as he tried to catch a flight.

Militia unit commander Al-Akhdar said his men were authorized to be at the airport. “(We are here) because of orders from the NTC. They gave us a letter asking us to manage the airport and be in charge of its security,” he said.

Meanwhile, other gunmen tried to assassinate head of the Libyan land forces, Khalifa Haftar, on Saturday in a bold daylight attack in Tripoli, setting off hours of intense gun battles along the main highway to the airport. Assailants in Tripoli also attacked one of Libya’s largest military bases.

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