CAIRO // A militia group stormed Tripoli's commercial airport yesterday, halting flights, spreading panic and highlighting the precarious security in the Libyan capital, where state forces are weak and revolutionary fighters still dominate.
Fighters from the town of Tarhona, south-east of Tripoli, took over the airport to protest against the disappearance of their commander, according to Mohamed Sadda, a media spokesman for the Tripoli Local Council.
Col Abu Ajela Al Habshi was kidnapped on Sunday on the road leading to the airport by "unknown individuals", said Mr Sadda.
This prompted his fighters to demonstrate later that day outside the Tripoli offices of the transitional council now governing the country, calling for an investigation,
When none was launched, the group took over the airport and burnt tyres to put pressure on the government, said Mr Sadda, who insisted that the men were not armed, though local media showed footage of at least one tank on a runway.
Since an internationally backed armed uprising swept Libya's autocratic leader, Muammar Qaddafi, from power in August, militia groups, known as thuwar or revolutionaries, have controlled patches of territory in Tripoli and the rest of the country.
Since Qaddafi's removal, armed tussles over turf have been frequent.
Despite much-touted government programmes to integrate the fighters into a nascent national army and other security forces, many men are still part of armed groups.
The commercial airport, which was controlled by a militia from the western mountain town of Zintan, was handed over to state security forces in April, according to media reports.
The inability of these security forces to stop the gunmen raises serious questions about the Libyan authorities' ability to maintain stability, said Shashank Joshi, of the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London.
He said a crucial question for Libya was whether a government elected in a poll scheduled for June 19 would be able to create a coherent security force.
The airport incident shook the business community, which had been hoping that increased stability would attract international investment to Libya, said Sami Zaptia, who heads the Know Libya consulting company.
"It sends wrong signals to all the businesses in Libya," Mr Zaptia said, adding that the unelected transitional government's mandate was not strong enough to build an effective army and police force.
"I think the new government will have to be much bolder."