The Libyan army regained control of the Tripoli international airport on Monday after a militia seized the tarmac and grounded all flights, a senior official said.
“The authorities have complete control over the airport,” deputy interior minister Omar al-Khadrawi told journalists in the capital, adding that dozens assailants were arrested and stripped of their weapons.
The National Transitional Council had authoritised the interior and defence ministries, who oversee a broad constellation of brigades made up of former rebels, to “use all means necessary, including force,” to retake the airport.
Security forces flooded the airport after negotiations broke down, he said.
“Some of the assailants fled and others turned themselves in without resistance,” he said, adding between 30 and 40 people were arrested.
Khadrawi said the “saboteurs” also blew up a hangar and set fire to fields surrounding the airport.
“We will alert airline companies that the airport will be shut over the next 24 hours,” he said, adding that technical issues, such as the rupture of communication lines, needed to be fixed before flights could resume.
In a fresh challenge to the interim government’s weak authority, members of the al-Awfea Brigade force occupied the airport to demand the release of their leader whom they said was being held by Tripoli’s security forces, officials said.
Weeks before a planned election, Libya’s new rulers are struggling to assert their control over an array of former fighters who still refuse to lay down their arms after last year’s war that ousted Muammar Qaddafi.
Several international flights were cancelled, and in some cases passengers who had already boarded planes got off and left the airport. Some flights were diverted to Tripoli’s military airport Mitiga, airport workers said.
One Italian passenger who was due to fly out and later arrived at a Tripoli hotel described the situation as “chaotic.”
“There were about 200 of them who came into the airport, they were armed. We were waiting to board our flight and we could hear noises, people shouting,” he said.
“We are protesting his kidnapping by coming to this airport,” Anas Amara said. “We have one tank outside the airport and our cars are surrounding the airplanes so they don’t fly.”
The militia is from the town of Tarhouna, 80 km (50 miles) southeast of Tripoli.
Last month, one person was killed and several were wounded when militiamen protesting outside the prime minister’s office started shooting.
In November, about 100 Libyans surrounded a Tunisian passenger aircraft at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, delaying its takeoff in an anti-government protest. Dozens of cars then drove out on to the tarmac, blocking the jet, with passengers on board, from moving.
Several international airlines have resumed flights to Tripoli, though security concerns have lingered since the end of the conflict last year.