BEIRUT

Middle East

Fighting erupts at Tripoli airport, gunmen surround planes

A customs officer inspects containers of election materials that have arrived at Tripoli airport in Tripoli May 24, 2012. Libyans are scheduled to vote for a new national assembly on June 19. (REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny)

TRIPOLI: Clashes broke out between rival Libyan militias at Tripoli’s international airport Monday after angry gunmen drove armed pickup trucks on to the tarmac and surrounded planes, forcing the airport to cancel flights.

In a fresh challenge to the interim government’s weak authority, members of the Al-Awfea Brigade force occupied the airport to demand the release of their leader whom they said was being held by Tripoli’s security forces, officials said.

Brigades of former fighters said they had restored calm at the airport by Monday evening. The groups, who have joined the Interior Ministry since last year’s war but are still loyal to their own commanders, said they had acted of their own accord. One brigade leader said 10 people were injured in the clashes but did not give details.

Weeks before a planned election, Libya’s new rulers are struggling to assert their control over an array of former fighters who still refuse to lay down their arms after last year’s war that ousted Moammar Gadhafi.

Several international flights were cancelled, and in some cases passengers who had already boarded planes got off and left the airport. Some flights were diverted to Tripoli’s military airport Mitiga, airport workers said.

“The situation in the airport is very tense and tanks are surrounding the buildings. No one is allowed into the building,” said the security official, who declined to be named.

One Italian passenger who was due to fly out and later arrived at a Tripoli hotel described the situation as “chaotic.”

“There were about 200 of them who came into the airport, they were armed. We were waiting to board our flight and we could hear noises, people shouting,” he said.

Clashes later broke out when militia groups from Tripoli as well as the mountain town of Zintan arrived at the airport to try to get the Al-Awfea Brigade to leave, a Reuters reporter said. He said gunfire could be heard and men were entering the airport carrying rocket-propelled grenades.

Repeated calls to government officials were left unanswered.

A member of the Al-Awfea Brigade said they believed their leader, Colonel Abu Oegeila al-Hebshi, was being detained in the airport after being held by the Tripoli Security Committee Sunday night for reasons he did not know.

“We are protesting his kidnapping by coming to this airport,” Anas Amara said. “We have one tank outside the airport and our cars are surrounding the airplanes so they don’t fly.”

The militia is from the town of Tarhouna, 80 km southeast of Tripoli.

National Transitional Council spokesman, Mohammad al-Harizy, said Hebshi was taken by unknown armed rebels while traveling between Tarhouna and Tripoli Sunday night.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 05, 2012, on page 1.

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