By George Grant and Rida Akil.
Tripoli, 4 June:
Tripoli’s international airport was occupied by militia from the western town of Tarhouna on . . .[restrict]Monday, in retaliation for the kidnapping of their commander, Abu-Alija Habshi, by unknown assailants on Sunday afternoon.
The arrival of government-controlled security forces late this afternoon has resulted in a gun-battle that saw the government retake control of the airport, with a number of militia reportedly captured.
The militia, known as the Al-Awfia brigade, used armoured vehicles, heavy machine guns and a tank to close down the airport for several hours, grounding a number of flights and forcing others to be diverted to Tripoli’s Metiga air base.
Mifta Ali Abu Zaid, a traveller present at the airport when the militia arrived, said he saw one member of the airport staff being carried away with an apparent shrapnel injury, although this has not been confirmed.
Airport maintenance workers on an Alitalia flight reported how they were forced into the airport terminal at gunpoint. “About 50 men came onto the tarmac with guns”, said one, who did not wish to give his name. “We tried to reason with them, and tell them that this is an airport for all Libyans, but they told us to get inside or they would kill us”.
The Alitalia crew as well as that on the incoming Austrian Airlines flight from Vienna were both caught up in the conflict and at first were not allowed to leave the airport. They were later allowed out.
When the Libya Herald arrived at the airport, tempers were flaring between stranded travelers and airport staff, who seemed powerless to control the situation. Such was the confusion that the Libya Herald was able to get onto the tarmac to investigate first-hand.
A few militia pick-up trucks with mounted machine guns were still in position, and the grass adjacent to the runway had been set ablaze.
Within a few minutes we were spotted and confronted by armed militiamen, who initially resolved to remove us from the airport before deciding instead to let us stay and be given their side of the story.
“We are here because we want the release of our commander”, said Abdel El-Ati Alssani, one of the militiamen. “Yesterday, we went to the NTC offices in Tripoli to discuss the kidnapping, but they refused to meet us. Today, we occupied the airport to put pressure on them to take this issue seriously”.
“We want answers”, said another, Khalifa Al-Tarhouni, “that is why we are here. Our intention is not to hurt anybody”. Both the whearabouts of Habshi, and the identity of his captors, remains unknown.
No more than ten minutes after the conclusion of this exchange, government-controlled security forces arrived at the airport in a large convoy of military vehicles, prompting the Libya Herald to leave the area owing to security concerns.
Shortly after our departure, fighting between the militia and government-controlled security forces did indeed break out, with automatic weapons and anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back of 4x4s reportedly being used.
Air Malta, whose flight left before the trouble started, has cancelled tomorrow’s flight and will assess the situation later during the day. Lufthansa has also cancelled tomorrow’s flight. An Austrian Airlines spokesman said that the airline would decide tomorrow if the flight would leave. “If passengers can come to the airport and it’s safe, we’ll take them.”
The Royal Jordanian flight from Amman was in the air when the airport was taken over. It landed at Metiga and later took off with passengers who transferred over from Tripoli International Airport. Metiga then closed to international flights both on the grounds that it could not cope and as a security measure.
This evening, armed checkpoints had re-emerged across Tripoli, having almost completely disappeared in recent months.
In spite of repeated attempts to contact the spokesmen from the government and the NTC, both have been unavailable for comment.
George Grant is Assistant Editor of the Libya Herald, Rida Akil is Editor of the Tripolis.