IMAYA/BENGHAZI/TUNIS: At least two people were killed in fighting between militias outside Libya’s capital Tripoli, troops in the area said Friday, in a sign that armed groups are vying for power in the absence of a unified army.
At a makeshift road checkpoint 30 kilometers west of Tripoli, fighters from the coastal town of Zawiya told Reuters that clashes erupted overnight after a rival militia set up roadblocks, started confiscating their weapons and smashing cars.
Fighters who helped overthrow Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi in an eight-month uprising have since set up roadblocks across the country, saying they are guarding oil facilities and providing security.
Three weeks since the National Transitional Council declared Libya liberated, analysts are warning that violence might erupt as armed factions struggle for influence.
“We came 10 kilometers from Zawiya to protect the area,” said fighter Morad Ali, sitting in his pickup truck with a rocket launcher fixed to the back.
“Members of the Wershifanna tribe kidnapped fighters from Zawiya,” he said, adding that heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades were used in the battle that lasted through the night and into the morning.
Fighters from Zawiya at the roadblock in the rural area of Imaya accused the Wershifanna of supporting Moammar Gadhafi and of setting out to seek revenge.
Fighters from Bani Walid, one of Gadhafi’s last bastions, have also moved into the area, they added.
“The Wershifanna say they are rebels, but they are not rebels. We found Gadhafi’s green flag around the area,” Ali said. A Reuters team found torn rags of the green flags along roads nearby but could not confirm who placed them there.
Zawiya militiamen said they were preparing to free their kidnapped colleagues from the armed Wershifanna fighters hiding in the area. Elders from both sides were first trying to negotiate a compromise, they added.
“The council of elders is speaking. If they don’t agree, we’ll go in,” a militiaman said. Fighting had not resumed by Friday night.
About 100 fighters from Zawiya, many of them firing into the air as a show of force, gathered under a bridge during the day checking cars for weapons and making arrests.
Meanwhile, Dozens of people demonstrated in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi Friday calling for the quick formation of a national army to replace the voluntary militias that overthrew Gadhafi.
“Yes to the national army, no to armed militias” and “No to a militia parallel to the army,” shouted demonstrators, among whom were officers of the former army and members of the voluntary brigades that waged war against the former strongman.
“We do not want a second Hezbollah,” said one of the organizers, referring to Lebanon’s powerful armed Shiite movement whose militia exists parallel to the national army.
Colonel Abdul-Mottaleb Miled said “we want a national army that defends the constitution, the borders of the state, a civil state. We are against extremism.”
Libya’s incoming Prime Minister Abdul-Rahim al-Qeeb has promised to disarm militias and set up a national army, but has yet to announce a concrete timetable or form a government.
“It is not an issue of just saying ‘OK, just give us your gun, go home.’ This is not the approach we take,” he told Reuters Wednesday.
“We will look at the issues, evaluate and come up with programs to take care of them and help them and make them feel important,” he added.
Abdul-Hakim Belhadj, the head of the NTC’s Military Council, told Reuters Friday that the fighting was an “isolated incident.”
“It is a sad situation that took place between two groups … an old feud that was renewed. And today we will work on establishing a peacemaking committee between the two tribes, and we hope they will have success,” he said.
In a separate development, Niger has decided to grant Gadhafi’s son Saadi asylum for humanitarian reasons, President Mahamadou Issoufou said Friday, adding that his brother Seif al-Islam is not in the country.
“We have agreed on granting asylum to Saadi Gadhafi for humanitarian reasons,” Issoufou told a news conference at the end of a two-day visit to South Africa.
“Seif al-Islam is not in Niger. I would have to consider what to do if he comes,” he said.
“We will deal with issues in terms of law and democracy and international agreements.”
Saadi Gadhafi, 38, fled Libya across its southern frontier to Niger in August during the fall of Tripoli that ended his authoritarian father’s 42-year rule.
Libya’s new leadership wants Saadi to stand trial for crimes allegedly committed while heading the country’s football federation.
Niger’s Prime Minister Brigi Rafini said in September that there was “no question” of extraditing Saadi, at least until he could be assured of a fair trial in Libya.
Meanwhile, Moammar Gadhafi’s premier Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi has applied for U.N. political refugee status to try to prevent his extradition from Tunisia, one of his lawyers said Friday.
“If the UNHCR grants Mr. Mahmoudi refugee status it will no longer be possible to extradite him,” said the lawyer, Taufik Wanas.
A Tunisian appeals court this week gave the nod for Mahmoudi’s extradition to Libya although rights groups have expressed concern for his safety if he is sent back.
“I am hopeful that the Tunisian people will not extradite a refugee,” said Mahmoudi, who appeared at a separate Tunis court Friday in connection with a fresh extradition request submitted by the authorities in Tripoli.
Mahmoudi was prime minister until Gadhafi’s final days. He was arrested Sept. 21 on Tunisia’s border with Algeria and jailed for illegal entry. He is being held in a prison near Tunis. Libya’s interim leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil pledged to ensure Mahmoudi’s security if he is returned.