Rival troops clash in battle for control of airport

  • @robhastings

Clashes erupted between rival militias at Tripoli's international airport yesterday after gunmen stormed the runway in armed vehicles to demand the release of their leader.

Flights to and from the airport were cancelled or diverted after members of al-Awfea Brigade occupied the airport for several hours, surrounding planes on the runway with armed pick-up trucks.

They demanded the release of their leader, Colonel Abu Oegeila al-Hebshi, who they said was being held at the airport by Tripoli's security forces after being "kidnapped" on Sunday.

By evening, rival brigades of former fighters said they had restored calm at the airport. The groups, who have joined the interior ministry since last year's war, but are still loyal to their own commanders, told Reuters they had acted of their own accord. One brigade leader said 10 people were injured in the clashes but did not give details.

The incident underlined concerns about the ability of Libya's new rulers to assert control over a country still riven with weapons and tribal rivalries after the war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.

Many of the groups who united to help overthrow Gaddafi's regime are refusing to give up their arms. The country's first open elections were scheduled to be held in a fortnight for a 200-member assembly, which will oversee the writing of a new constitution. But it was reported yesterday that they will be delayed until July at the earliest.

Sghair Majeri, the former deputy election commissioner, told Al Jazeera that "holding elections by 19 June is a mission impossible", due to candidates still needing to be approved and ballots distributed across the country, though other officials have said that security is also a worry.

Al-Awfea Brigade – whose men at the airport were "on the runway, in the car park, everywhere", according to an official at the defence ministry – is based in Tarhouna, a city 50 miles south-east of Tripoli.

A representative from the region was reportedly brought to the airport to negotiate at the stand-off.

The city's inhabitants are viewed with suspicion by many Libyans because Tarhouna was favoured by Gaddafi, with senior figures from its local tribe occupying top positions in his armed forces.

A spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council, said Colonel Hebshi was taken by unknown rebels while travelling between Tarhouna and Tripoli.