Libya army arrests militia to free up Tripoli airport

Normal service gradually resumes at Tripoli's airport, with some flights taking off and landing, after Libyan security forces and militias arrested dozens of armed men who had staged a takeover on Monday.

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CAIRO // Normal service gradually resumed at Tripoli's airport yesterday, with some flights taking off and landing, after Libyan security forces and militias arrested dozens of armed men who had staged a takeover on Monday.

The revolutionary Al Awfea militia from the town of Tarhona, who brought with them anti-aircraft weapons and a tank, took over the commercial airport on Monday after the still-unsolved disappearance of their commander.

The motivation for the raid was to pressure the government to explain the whereabouts of Col Abu Ajila Al Habshi, according to the official Lana news agency.

Tripoli's security commission, which answers to the interior ministry, said it had nothing to do with "the disappearance and abduction of Col Abu Ajila Al Habshi" and that it was still tracking those responsible.

Government officials said that the men were surrounded on Monday evening by the national army and by revolutionary fighters now working with the interior ministry, and that 30 to 50 men had given up their weapons without heavy fighting and were under investigation.

But on Monday night, according to reports, Tripoli resembled the heavily militarised environment it became during the fighting last year that culminated in the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, as militia checkpoints sprung up in many streets.

Omar Al Khadrawi, the deputy interior minister, said on Monday that in the wake of the attack, the army was preparing a better plan for protection of the city, and faced questions as to why it had been possible for the men to stage the attack.

Mohamed Al Sabbee, a spokesman of the prime minister's office, said the decision was taken not to engage the Awfea militia while they were on their way to the airport as a means of reducing the risk of heavy fighting on Tripoli's streets.

Mr Al Khadrawi said the "saboteurs" also blew up a hangar and set fire to fields surrounding the airport. "We will alert airline companies that the airport will be shut over the next 24 hours," he said, adding that technical issues, such as the rupture of communication lines, needed to be fixed before flights could resume.

Although there was exchange of fire, said Mr Al Sabbee, speaking yesterday, "it wasn't real fighting, because they found themselves in a minority".

"They could have captured them at the beginning, but it would have caused dead people and injuries so they decided to surround them and talk to them."

Yesterday morning, there were some militia checkpoints in the streets but by evening the city had returned to normal, said residents. The detainees were being held in the Mitiga military airport, awaiting investigation, according to a spokesman for the Tripoli local council.

The swift response of the army and militias that support it were possible because the incident took place in the capital, where the transitional government's shaky security forces have some traction, said David Hartwell, and analyst with IHS Jane's.

"The government has had real difficulty disarming the militias who fought against Qaddafi but now want to stake a claim to what happens next," he said. "There are a lot of local grievances around, and many groups take action on their own - for good reasons or using excuses to assert themselves."

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse