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BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) ' A powerful Libyan militia said Sunday it has withdrawn from the country's main airport, leaving it unprotected with no government security force to take over.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

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.

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

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

"We were martyred to liberate this country, but where is the government? Where is the police? Where is the army? Where is a constitution?" al-Akhdar said.

He said his militia left the airport to send a message to officials in Tripoli "that we will not be burdened by their failure to govern."

In another example of the precarious situation, Libyan tribesmen have kept the country's main border crossing with Egypt closed for more than a day, complaining of a rise in crime and rampant smuggling of drugs and weapons across the frontier, residents and officials said.

Al-Zintani 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 and border security and counterterrorism, so that they could return to their posts as official government employees. He said he got no response.

"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 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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