Tripoli’s airport closed after forces clash in gun battle

CLASHES at Tripoli’s international airport yesterday saw flights suspended and airspace over the city closed, underlying the fractious security situation in the Libyan capital.

In a battle that underlines the inability of the government to take control, units commanded by a former army general, Khalifa Haftar, tried to enter the airport – which is controlled by a militia from Zintan, a town 90 miles south-west of the capital.

They fought at an overpass a mile from the airport, with the Zintanis saying yesterday that they came under fire from Gen Haftar’s vehicles after barring their way.

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“Haftar came in five SUVs, he wanted to get the airport,” said the Zintan unit commander, Abusalem Bin Aluway. “We blocked the way and fired in the air. The next thing, his [Haftar’s] bodyguards opened fire from the vehicles.”

In the firefight that followed, and which lasted several hours, two Zintan fighters were wounded and two more captured by Gen Haftar’s unit.

With tracer fire arcing over the runways, air traffic control halted flights and announced airspace over the capital was also closed. The deadlock was broken by the arrival of Libya’s new defence minister, Osama Jweli, who persuaded Gen Haftar to hand back the prisoners and told the checkpoint militia to remain on post.

Gen Haftar’s force later retreated to its base two miles further down the airport highway, which was yesterday guarded by a tank and two armoured cars.

The battle demonstrates the fact that, more than three months after it fell to rebel forces, Tripoli remains a mosaic of competing militias.

The defence minister, himself a Zintani, controls the airport garrison and has the support of units from Misrata, which garrison Tripoli’s eastern suburbs of Tejura and Suga Juma.

These garrisons in turn have the support of local residents, as their own fighters are integrated with the Misratan units.

“Misratan and Zintani units, we want them to stay in Tripoli for now,” said Mohammed Ayat, a student and member of one of the city’s local militias. “They are organised, they offer us security.”

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This has led to the bizarre situation whereby the defence minister controls the south and east of the city, but not the centre.

Here, control is disputed. Some areas are controlled by local militias, formed spontaneously by local residents to take the place of the police.

Other units are controlled by Abdul Hakim Belhaj, a former Islamist who was appointed Libyan security chief by the ruling National Transitional Council in August.

Adding to the confusion, the NTC has its own units from Benghazi providing personal protection, while a separate Islamist brigade is led by the self-styled Tripoli Revolutionary Council. Local businessmen have begun recruiting private armies to guard shops and warehouses.

An NTC-appointed cabinet of technocrats appointed last month was supposed to bring unity, but it is unclear how much authority this government really has, with the key decisions remaining the providence of the NTC.