Armed Libyans hand airport to police, ready or not
Benghazi: The commander of a powerful Libyan militia said on Sunday he has withdrawn from the country's main airport, while some of his men remained behind to give the government another chance to either hire them or take over security itself.
Airport official Nawal al-Amin said that some former rebels left after the top commander quit, but others were meeting with Interior Ministry officials at Tripoli's international airport to try to end the standoff.
The withdrawal of Zintan rebel commander Sayid Mokhtar al-Akhdar and some of his men leaves open the question of who will protect the international airport.
The airport security dispute was the latest sign of the inability of the central government to function effectively after last year's overthrow of longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
Militias comprised of former rebels have shouldered much of the responsibility of policing the country in the absence of a national Army and police force. The militias operate outside the government's control.
The militia from Libya's western mountainous area of Zintan said it no longer wants to be responsible for securing the airport, seven months after it assumed control there.
Zintan militia spokesman Khaled al-Zintani said the former rebels were responsible for securing a 15-kilometer (10-mile) radius around the airport following a proliferation of long and short-range missiles that could threaten air traffic. The government has staffed civilian posts like the customs office.
The government promised in a statement on Sunday that it would take over by the afternoon, but later issued a statement saying the handover was running behind schedule. It did not elaborate.
"The sight of armed men around the airport has caused tensions, so we wanted the government to take over the airport," al-Zintani said.
"We were martyred to liberate this country, but where is the government? Where is the police? Where is the army? Where is a constitution?" al-Akhdar said.
Al-Akhdar said his forces are under pressure to provide security with no funds, no salaries and little gratitude. He said his militia left the airport to send a message to officials in Tripoli "that we will not be burdened by their failure to govern."
Libyan Interior Ministry spokesman Abdel-Salam al-Tounsi said some of the former rebels protecting the airport were meeting with a top police official to discuss plans for possible employment and salaries. The Interior Ministry said the former rebels must be given training before they can work as guards at the airport.
In general, the government does not have the capability of providing its own force to secure vital government facilities, according to former rebels.
Libyan tribesmen have kept the country's main border crossing with Egypt closed for more than a day, complaining of a rise in crime and rampant smuggling of drugs and weapons across the frontier, according to residents and officials.
Al-Zintani said that former rebels who helped liberate Libya of Gadhafi's regime proposed to Interior Ministry officials that the government organize training for the militias in specialized fields, such as airport and border security and counterterrorism, so that they could return to their posts as official government employees. He said he got no response.
"We want the government to create separate departments that the militias can be trained to run," he said. "If we are serious about building a country, this is what we need to do."
Libya's transitional government has signed agreements with Turkey and Jordan to send more than 11,000 former rebels for security training, but no timetable has been given.
The government estimates that over 200,000 people in Libya are armed. It has attempted a number of schemes, including offering people jobs in exchange for handing over their weapons or offering to buy their guns, in order to disarm the militias. So far the offers have shown few results.
Earlier this month, the head of Libya's interim government, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, told The Associated Press that his government does not want militias in control of state facilities.
Al-Zintani charged that Abdul-Jalil's government is not yet capable of securing the country.
"The reality on the ground is that the militias are protecting the country and protecting government facilities," he said.