Militias continue stronghold a year after Libyan uprising
MAGGIE MICHAEL TRIPOLI, LIBYA - Feb 17 2012 10:56
One militia controls the airport. Others carve up neighbourhoods of the
Libyan capital into fiefdoms. They clash in the streets, terrifying
residents. They hold detainees in makeshift prisons where torture is said to
As Libya on Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the start of the
uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, 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 Gaddafi 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
Gaddafi 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."
As a result, Libya has been flipped upside down, from a country where all
power was in the hands of one man, Gaddafi, to one where it has been broken
up into hundreds of different hands, each taking its own decisions. The
National Transitional Council (NTC), 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 Gaddafi.
'Transit only' money
In one sign of the lack of control, Finance Minister Hassan Zaklam admitted
that millions of dollars from Gaddafi 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 February 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
Government spokesperson 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 colour of Gaddafi'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.
The militias, meanwhile, are accused of acting like vigilantes and armed
gangs, fighting over turf and taking the law into their own hands. Many run
private prisons, detaining criminals, suspected former regime members or
simply people who run afoul of the fighters.
In a report on 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. Detainees told the group they had been beaten for
hours with whips, cables and plastic hoses and given electrical shocks.
At least 12 detainees have died since September after torture, it said.
The militias arose during last year's eight-month-long civil war against
Taking up arms
Soon after anti-regime protests first erupted nationwide on February 17
2011, Libya's second largest city Benghazi and the rest of the eastern half
of the country threw off rule from Tripoli. As Gaddafi clamped down in the
west, Libyan citizens formed local militias based around a city, town or
even neighbourhood, taking up arms to fight alongside breakaway army units.
Backed by Nato airstrikes, the militias swept into Tripoli in August,
driving out Gaddafi. The militias then were at the forefront of battles for
the last regime strongholds, ending with Gaddafi's capture and killing in
October at the hands of a militia from Misrata, a city east of Tripoli that
endured one of the bloodiest sieges of the civil war.
Since then, militias have carved up neighbourhoods 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, said Jalal
al-Gelani, the deputy police chief of the Tripoli neighbourhood of Souq
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 two sides fired rifles and heavy
machine guns, shattering the complex's windows and damaging cars.
The police have been eclipsed. When Tripoli fell, most police fled and shed
their uniforms, 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, said one
officer, Mustafa al-Darnawi.
At night, police officers 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 local police
station, where a large sign over the entrance reads, "No to revenge, yes to
Last week, top militia commanders from the western half of the country
gathered in Tripoli to form a united front to coordinate their activities
and avoid fights. The front mirrors a separate bloc created in the east.
The fronts also present a political force to pressure the National
Transitional Council and the Cabinet it created, headed by Prime Minister
Abdel Rahim al-Keib, signaling they will not lay down their arms.
NTC efforts to integrate the revolutionaries have already brought
A newly formed defence 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 Gaddafi'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."
At the same time, the militias appear to be pressing for a political say as
well, demanding figures they feel come from the ranks of the revolution be
given government posts.
And they are confident the NTC and government have 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." -- Sapa-AP
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Received on Fri Feb 17 2012 - 18:17:18 EST