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A year after revolt, Libya mired in factional fighting

One militia controls the airport. Others carve up the Libyan capital's neighborhoods into fiefdoms. They clash in the streets, terrifying residents, and allegedly torture detainees.
/ Source: news services

One militia controls the airport. Others carve up neighborhoods of the Libyan capital into fiefdoms. They clash in the streets, terrifying residents. They hold detainees in makeshift prisons where torture is said to be rampant.

As Libya on Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the start of the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, hundreds of armed militias are the real power on the ground in the country, and the government that took the longtime strongman's place is largely impotent, unable to rein in fighters, rebuild decimated institutions or stop widespread corruption.

The revolutionary militias contend they are Libya's heroes — the ones who drove Gadhafi from power and who now keep security in the streets at a time when the police and military are all but nonexistent.

They insist they won't give up their weapons to a government that is too weak, too corrupt and, they fear, too willing to let elements of the old dictatorship back into positions of power.

"I am fed up," said the commander of a militia of fighters from the western mountain town of Zintan who control Tripoli's airport. Al-Mukhtar al-Akhdar says Libya's politicians unfairly blame the militias for the country's chaos while doing nothing to bring real change.

They believe "revolutionaries have no place in Libya now," said al-Akhdar, who was once a tour company owner in Zintan until he took up arms against Gadhafi and now sports a military uniform. "We paid a very heavy price in the revolution, not for the sake of a seat or authority, but for the sake of freedoms and rights."

An uprising in Libya ousts dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

As a result, Libya has been flipped upside down, from a country where all power was in the hands of one man, Gadhafi, to one where it has been broken up into hundreds of different hands, each taking its own decisions.

The National Transitional Council, which officially rules the country, is struggling to incorporate the militias into the military and police, while trying to get the economy back on its feet and reshape government ministries, courts and other institutions hollowed out under Gadhafi.

'I can't be a clown'
In one sign of the lack of control, Finance Minister Hassan Zaklam admitted that millions of dollars from Gadhafi family assets returned to Libya by European countries — a potentially key source of revenue — have flowed right back out of Libya, stolen by corrupt officials and smuggled out in suitcases through the ports.

"The money comes for transit only," Zaklam said in a Feb. 6 interview on Libya state TV. He threatened to resign if the government didn't impose control over ports or stop unfreezing the assets. "I can't be a clown," he said.

Government spokesman Ashur Shamis blamed revolutionaries in charge of ports and middle- and lower-ranking bureaucrats from the old regime who still retain their posts, known among Libyans as the "Green Snakes," after the signature color of Gadhafi's rule.

At the airport, al-Akhdar blamed customs employees and said his fighters are keeping a closer eye on them — but he insisted stopping smuggling was the police and military's responsibility.

In a report Wednesday, London-based Amnesty International said it found prisoners had been tortured or abused in all but one of 11 militia-run facilities it visited. At least 12 detainees have died since September after torture, it said.

Inter-tribal conflict has also broken out in the desert in the south of the country.

Since last week, gunmen from the Zwai tribe have been clashing with fighters from the Tibu ethnic group led by Isa Abdel Majid, whom they accuse of attacking the remote city of Al Kufra backed by mercenaries from Chad, according to a security official from the Zwai tribe.

"The Tibu attacked the city with mortars and there were snipers," Abdelbari Idriss, the security official from the Zwai tribe, told Reuters Thursday. He said 15 people on his side had been killed and 45 injured.

The Tibu, however, said they were the ones to come under attack.

Mohammed Laban, from the Tibu tribe and a representative of a citizen group in Al Kufra, said the death toll among the Tibu had reached 55, and more than 100 had been injured. He said the Tibu had asked the NTC for help.

"There is a crisis here. There are no doctors, there is no water. Shops are closed," he said by phone. "The number of injured is 117. We couldn't get to the airport because it is under control of the Zwai and we would like the NTC to help by sending helicopters to take our injured to hospitals."

It was not possible to independently verify the reports.

The militias arose during last year's 8-month-long civil war against Gadhafi.

Soon after anti-regime protests first erupted nationwide on Feb. 17, 2011, Libya's second largest city Benghazi and the rest of the eastern half of the country threw off rule from Tripoli.

As Gadhafi clamped down in the west, Libyan citizens formed militias based around a city, town or neighborhood, taking up arms to fight alongside breakaway army units.

Backed by NATO airstrikes, the militias swept into Tripoli in August, driving out Gadhafi. The militias were at the forefront of battles for the last regime strongholds, ending with Gadhafi's capture and killing in October at the hands of a militia from Misrata, east of Tripoli.

Since then, militias have carved up neighborhoods in Tripoli and other cities, establishing their hold with checkpoints at the entrances. There are efforts between them to cooperate: If a brigade chases a suspect into another district, it must seek clearance from the local militia, Jalal al-Gelani, the deputy police chief of the Tripoli neighborhood of Souq al-Jomaa, said.

'Yes to forgiveness'
But borders often overlap. Disputes break out over personnel or relatives from one militia detained by another. Then the weapons come out and shooting begins.

There are usually no casualties, but the battles terrify residents. In January, a gunbattle between Misrata and Zintan revolutionaries erupted in a turf fight over a sports complex.

The police have been eclipsed. When Tripoli fell, most police fled, fearful of revenge attacks. The police chief in Souq al-Jomaa never came back. Now there are about 200 police in the Souq al-Jomaa station, about a tenth of the number of militiamen, one officer, Mustafa al-Darnawi, said.

At night, policemen vanish, afraid of attacks. Police stations are guarded by militiamen.

"Without revolutionaries, the police are zeros," said a Souq al-Jomaa resident, 24-year-old Ahmed Hajaji, standing next to the police station, where a sign over the entrance read, "No to revenge, yes to forgiveness."

Last week, militia commanders from the western half of the country gathered in Tripoli to form a united front to coordinate their activities and avoid fights.

NTC efforts to integrate the revolutionaries have already brought opposition.

A newly formed Defense Ministry "Warriors Committee" has so far registered 200,000 revolutionaries, who are given the option to join the army, police, intelligence or get help returning to society, such as a loan to start up a business or even travel abroad for studies.

But the committee has also registered members of Gadhafi's forces alongside the revolutionaries as part of an attempt at reconciliation, angering many in the militias.

"This is out of the question," said Farag al-Swehli, the commander of a Misrata militia operating in Tripoli. "You can't bring two people who fought against each other to sit next to each other ... There is only one way: Revolutionaries are the army."

The militias are confident the NTC and government has to listen to them.

"We can withdraw our troops in one second ... but who is going to protect Libya," said al-Akhdar in a defiant tone. "If they have a national army or police, let them show us. We haven't seen any so far."