Armed militia storm Tripoli airport after leader’s kidnap

LIBYA’S international airport was closed yesterday after being stormed by militia men angry about the kidnapping of their commander.

Passengers and flight crews watched in astonishment as jeeps with machineguns mounted raced on to Tripoli airport’s runways to surround taxiing planes.

Shots were fired and there were reports of wounded ground staff as take-offs were aborted and incoming flights were diverted to Tripoli’s military airport.

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The militia, from Tarhuna, 60 miles south of the capital, said they captured the airport after the authorities failed to launch a manhunt for their commander, Au Aela El Hebshi, who was kidnapped on Sunday night while driving in Tripoli.

Oil worker Adem Saleh was on a bus out to his flight when the militia jeeps drove on to the runway. “They just appeared out of nowhere,” he said. “A lot of people on the bus were frightened, women were crying, nobody knew what was going on.”

He said he watched in astonishment as the vehicles spread out on the runway, firing in the air and ordering planes to stop. Several vehicles stopped by aircraft stairs, with fighters telling crews to stop their engines.

One jeep stopped by an Alitalia jet that was being readied for take-off, with fighters opening fire near the plane’s Libyan ground crew, Mr Saleh said.

“They [the fighters] walked up to these guys, I could see they were shouting,” he said. “Then they opened fire. I don’t know if they shot the ground crew or they were firing near them.”

He said he later saw two wounded ground crew being treated in the airport building.

Government negotiators were sent to the airport, and by late afternoon, the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) said the militia had re-opened the airport in return for a pledge their commander would be found.

But the militia unit remained inside the airport complex. By early evening, police and army road blocks had been set up and the militia, while pulling off the runway itself, remained camped in the airport. Thousands more militiamen, police and troops set up improvised checkpoints across the city amid fears of further violence.

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The government’s elite Special Security Committee, blamed by human rights activists for the kidnap and torture of a prominent surgeon two weeks ago, last night denied its units had arrested commander Hemshi.

“Hemshi was not armed, he was kidnapped while driving unarmed in Tripoli with his nephew,” said Abdula Mezogi, one of the Tarhuna militiamen, in an interview with Libya’s Al Ahrar television. “I blame the NTC, they didn’t do anything, we told them about the kidnapping and they didn’t do anything.”

The attack underlines the precarious security situation of a country where inter-tribal violence is a near daily occurrence.

Last month, another disgruntled militia stormed the office of prime minister Abdulrahim El Keib, angry they had not been paid, triggering a gun battle that left one man dead.

Earlier this year, more than 150 died in inter-tribal fighting in towns in southern Libya, and skirmishes west of Tripoli have seen the main land crossing with Tunisia closed on several occasions.