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Ease of militia takeover of Tripoli airport raises questions

Libyan official says most groups are ‘responsible’

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A senior Libyan official says a "miscommunication" was responsible for militia shutting down Tripoli's international airport on Monday, the latest challenge to the interim government's authority.

A "miscommunication took place between people," Libya's Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur told The Washington Times.

Militia members from Tarhouna, a city southeast of Tripoli, stormed the airport and demanded the release of their leader, who they said had been detained by security forces in the Libyan capital. Several flights were canceled or diverted because of the incident.

The militia's commander was kidnapped by other militiamen, not security forces, according to a Libyan official who spoke on background. Airport operations resumed Tuesday after security forces retook control.

However, the incident underscored the government's feeble control and the threat posed by militias that refuse to join the state's security apparatus.

Human rights groups have accused some militias of behaving as if they are above the law and torturing detainees suspected of being loyal to the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi's family.

Mr. Abushagur said the militias have good intentions.

"These people are willing to be part of the system they are just saying that 'We would like to make sure that nobody will steal our revolution away from us,'" said Mr. Abushagur, who is on a trip to Washington.

"Our plan is to give them other opportunities most of them are very responsible," he said.

The problem of the militias has been compounded by the fact that Libya is awash with weapons left over from the revolution that ousted the Gadhafi regime last year.

The U.S. has committed to providing $40 million to secure and recover the weapons stockpiles.

However, the Libyan government has not agreed to the U.S. proposal to buy shoulder-fired man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADs, in an effort to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists.

Many of the militias are reluctant to relinquish the weapons.

"We are as concerned as the U.S. government about the MANPADs. We don't want them to fall into the wrong hands, but we are very careful not to get into buying arms because the moment we do that we don't know what arms are going to come into the country," said Mr. Abushagur.

"[Libya] may become a place where people go to sell arms to the government. We are trying to resolve these issues without going in that direction," he added.

Human rights groups also have called on Libya's government to revoke a new law that makes punishable offenses of criticizing the revolution to topple Gadhafi and glorifying the late leader.

Gadhafi was killed by revolutionaries Oct. 20 in his hometown of Sirte, about 230 miles east of Tripoli. His son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, is in the custody of an independent militia brigade in the western city of Zintan. The brigade had been reluctant to hand him over to the central authorities in Tripoli; however, Mr. Abushagur said they have changed their mind.

"The people of Zintan are willing to give Seif to the government. There is no question there," he said.

The government is building a high-security prison in Tripoli to keep high-value detainees. The prison should be completed by the end of the month, when Seif al-Islam will be transferred to Tripoli for trial, Mr. Abushagur said.

Seif al-Islam is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of committing crimes against humanity. But Libyan authorities are reluctant to hand him over to the court.

Mr. Abushagur said the trial must be in Libya because that's where the crimes were committed.

A bomb exploded outside the U.S. Consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Wednesday. No casualties were reported.

The State Department has asked the Libyan government to step up security around U.S. facilities in the country.

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