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Armed Libyans hand airport to police, ready or not
Libyan militia handing over airport security to government police, military _ ready or not
By The Associated Press

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) ' A powerful Libyan militia said Sunday it has withdrawn from the country's main airport, leaving it unprotected with no government security force to take over.

The evacuation of the airport was the latest sign of the inability of the central government to function effectively after last year's overthrow of longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi.

Militias comprised of former rebels have shouldered much of the responsibility of policing the country in the absence of a national army and police force. The militias operate outside the government's control.

The militia that had been securing the airport gave the government a 24-hour deadline late Saturday, saying they would hand over security to Interior Ministry officials, whether a police force is ready to assume control or not.

The militia from Libya's western mountainous area of Zintan said it no longer wants to be responsible for securing the airport seven months after it assumed control there.

Zintan militia spokesman Khaled al-Zintani said the former rebels were responsible for securing a 15-kilometer (10-mile) radius around the airport following a proliferation of long and short-range missiles that could threaten air traffic. Meanwhile, the government staffed civilian posts like the customs office.

Zintan's militia leaders said they met with government officials earlier this month and were promised that the Interior Ministry would assume control of the airport by March 17, al-Zintani said. The government failed to send a police force then, prompting the Zintan militia to give the government a deadline of Sunday evening to take over airport security.

The government promised in a statement Sunday that it would take over by the afternoon, but later issued a statement saying the handover was running behind schedule. It did not elaborate.

According to al-Zintani, the former rebels are tired of protests against their presence and of being blamed by residents of the capital of Tripoli of not turning over security responsibilities to Libya's new leaders.

"The sight of armed men around the airport has caused tensions, so we wanted the government to take over the airport," al-Zintani said.

He said that former rebels who helped liberate Libya of Gadhafi's regime proposed to Interior Ministry officials that the government organize training for the militias in specialized fields, such as airport security, so that they could return to their posts as official government employees.

Al-Zintani said the government did not respond to this request and has not offered a plan for how it will absorb the thousands of armed men, many of whom are unemployed and suffering psychological trauma from the civil war.

"We want the government to create separate departments that the militias can be trained to run," he said. "If we are serious about building a country, this is what we need to do."

Government officials were not immediately available for comment.

Libya's transitional government has signed agreements with Turkey and Jordan to send more than 11,000 former rebels for security training, but no timetable has been given.

The government estimates that over 200,000 people in Libya are armed. It has attempted a number of schemes, including offering people jobs in exchange for handing over their weapons or offering to buy their guns, in order to disarm the militias. So far the offers have shown few results.

Earlier this month, the head of Libya's interim government, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, told The Associated Press that his government does not want militias in control of state facilities.

Al-Zintani charged that Abdul-Jalil's government is not yet capable of securing the country.

"The reality on the ground is that the militias are protecting the country and protecting government facilities," he said.


Batrawy reported from Cairo.

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