Libyan militia hands Tripoli airport to government

RAMI AL-SHAHEIBI Associated Press Published:

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) -- A powerful Libyan militia that took over the country's busiest airport when Moammar Gadhafi was deposed said Thursday it will hand over responsibility for the airport to the government, which is struggling to assert its control over militias across Libya.

The decision by the Zintan forces to relinquish such a powerful symbol, the airport in the capital of Tripoli, represents a victory for Libya's central government, which has been heavily criticized for failing to rein in the various militia groups operating across the country.

The test, however, will be whether government forces will be able to ensure the security and safety of airport operations.

A spokesman for the Zintan militia, Khaled Kar, said Thursday that commanders will hand over the airport to the Ministry of Interior within a week in an official ceremony. He vowed the handover would be permanent.

"When we get out, we will never come back," Kar said.

"Everyone is saying unless the militia leaves the airport, the state has no presence in the ground," he said. "We don't want to be a stumbling block in the path of restoring state institutions."

The Zintan militia were part of the Libyan revolutionaries who swept through Tripoli in August, toppling Gadhafi after months of fighting by citizens-turned-fighters against the regime.

Since then, their well-trained and well-equipped fighters from the mountain city in western Libya have been running the airport in addition to various other institutions, chipping away at the government's power and control.

The leader of Libya's National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, admitted Wednesday that his government doesn't have enough power to deal with militias refusing to allow the army and police to take over vital border crossings and airports.

"If we did (have enough power), we would have put our hands on border crossings and passages controlled by the revolutionaries," he told the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network.

But Kar questioned the ability of the government to protect the airport, considered a vital piece of infrastructure in the country's efforts to rebuild economically.

"The government forces don't have the ability to prevent security breaches or engage in battles," he said.

The Zintan militia also protects other vital institutions in Tripoli, such as oil fields and refineries. They have also teamed up with other revolutionaries in the south, to protect Libya's border with Algeria and Niger.

The militia has said that they do not want to integrate with the government because they say the ministries and forces are infiltrated by remnants of the old regime.

The militias have played an important role in the aftermath of Gadhafi's ouster, such as protecting government institutions and infrastructure. But they have also been severely criticized for refusing to give up weapons and because they are not accountable to anyone.

Their management of the ports of entry have also come under question after corruption allegations have arisen.

Libyan Finance Minister Hassan Zaklam said last month that millions of dollars of 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 country's various ports of entry.