Armed groups clash in turf war near Tripoli airport

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A convoy carrying one of Libya’s most senior military leaders was involved in a gunfight between rival armed groups overnight near Tripoli’s international airport, said local militia commanders.

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

Two commanders said the clashes began when a vehicle carrying Khalifa Haftar, head of ground forces in the Libyan national army, approached a checkpoint about 3 km from the airport which was manned by militiamen from outside Tripoli, Reuters reports.
“Khalifa Haftar and his convoy came to the checkpoint and did not stop when they were asked to,” Colonel Mukhtar Fernana, who said his militia was at the scene of the clashes, told Reuters.
“When they (the men at the checkpoint) tried to stop them, Haftar’s guards opened fire and injured two people,” he said.

He said Haftar’s convoy was then pursued to the nearby Hamza military camp, which his forces were using as a base, and a second gunfight broke out. A second militia commander, Abdullah Mohammed Attroudi, confirmed that account.

Ahmed Bani, a spokesman for the fledgling national army, said “rogue militias” were to blame and that the government would redouble efforts to clamp down on unofficial armed groups.
“Some rogue militias tried to attack General Haftar,” Bani said. “An investigation has started. The Libyan army will never let this matter happen again … We are going to clear the city of weapons.”

Haftar himself could not be reached for comment on the incident.

He was one of the group of Libyan military officers who carried out the 1969 coup which brought Gaddafi to power. He later fell out with the former Libyan leader, and spent the past 20 years living in the United States.

He returned to his native Benghazi, in eastern Libya, when the revolt broke out there in February this year, and was a commander of anti-Gaddafi forces in the east of the country.

The army spokesman said Haftar was now commander of ground forces. It was unclear what that involved as the national army has not yet been officially created.

FRICTION

Earlier, a commander of the militia guarding the airport, Mukhtar Al-Akhdar, said the gunfight broke out because a convoy of national army vehicles arrived at the checkpoint and said it was taking over control of airport security.

He said the row was defused after intervention from Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of Libya’s interim leadership the National Transitional Council (NTC), as well as from Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib and Defence Minister Osama Al-Juwali.

The airport has already been the focus of friction between rival militias. It is patrolled by fighters from Zintan, a town about 160 km south-west of Tripoli.

Their control is resented by other groups, who say the Zintan militia should hand over to central government institutions.

Libya’s multitude of armed militias emerged from the fight to end Gaddafi’s rule. Nearly two months after the fighting ended, Libya’s interim leadership says it is time for the militias to hand over to the new national police and army.

Most militia leaders say publicly that they are ready to do so as soon as they receive the order from the NTC.

But the national police and army are still being formed, and squabbling over who will hold the key posts could heighten the tensions between the militias even further.

Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice chairman of the NTC, said that two of the militias in Tripoli had already been given a date by which they should leave the city.
“Once the army is rebuilt, the NTC will make a declaration for the submission of weapons and for individuals to enter the army or security forces,” he said on Sunday in Doha.