x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Zintan fighters deny assassination attempt in Tripoli airport clashes

Revolutionary fighters clashed with national army troops, reflecting the difficulties Libya's new leaders face as they try to stamp their authority on the disparate militias that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi.

TRIPOLI // Revolutionary fighters clashed with national army troops near Tripoli's airport, leaving one person dead, officials said Sunday.

The violence reflects the difficulties Libya's new leaders face as they try to stamp their authority on the disparate militias that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi.

Sgt Abdel Razik el Shibahy, an army spokesman, said fighters from the mountain town of Zintan, who control Tripoli's international airport, opened fire on two occasions on Saturday on the convoy of Gen Khalifa Hifter, the commander of the fledgling national army.

He accused the Zintan revolutionaries of trying to assassinate Gen Hifter, and said one guard was killed and four others wounded in the second attack. He also said the Zintan fighters mistakenly believed that the army was coming to attack them at the airport, which they have been in control shortly after the capture of Tripoli in August.

"Zintan rebels opened fire on the convoy from left, right and front," he said. "They think that the army wants to take over the airport but this is not the case."

Khaled El Zintani, a spokesman for the Zintan fighters, denied they tried to kill Gen Hifter, and blamed the violence on the army's failure to notify them that the general was coming.

The Zintan fighters, who control a number of checkpoints on the motorway leading to the airport, said Gen Hifter's convoy failed to stop at one of the security posts, and instead sped through it, causing the Zintanis to open fire.

"What do you expect fighters to do when a heavily armed military convoy tries to pass checkpoints without previous notification?" Mr el Zintani said.

The clashes highlight one of the biggest challenges facing Libya's new leaders - establishing functioning security services, including an army and border guards. Currently, semiautonomous militias that fought against Qaddafi still control key locations, including the capital's airport, and have proven reluctant to submit to the authority of the still weak interim national government.

Mr El Zintani said the revolutionaries are ready to hand the airport to a government agency "only if it is capable of protecting the airport from intrusions."

Mukhtar Al Akhdar, the Zintan commander at the airport, also rejected the army's authority.

"If this is a real army, why don't they go protect the borders instead of trying to take over the airport?" he said.

Hifter was named to replace Abdel Fattah Younis, who was killed in late July. Rebels insisted it was the work of Qaddafi's regime but several witnesses said Mr Younis was killed by fellow rebels.

The army says that it is trying to persuade revolutionary fighters to return to their homes, and, if possible, to enlist in its ranks. It has stopped short of demanding their weapons until the interim government can deliver on promises of jobs and training.

The army leadership appears to have the support of many Libyans who are tired of militia clashes and heavily-armed young men roaming the streets of the capital. But the fighters so far have refused to disarm, arguing that the military is too poorly organised for them to submit to its authority.

"Until now, we don't know anything about the Libyan national army. Who is in charge, where are the military bases, what is its chain of command or even how can rebels join it?" said Mr El Zintani. "On the ground, the so-called national army is nothing yet."