Libyan army, militia clash, leaving 1 dead

Libyan demonstrators hold a banner that reads in Arabic 'No for arms, yes for law.. it was and it shall be peaceful again' during a protest calling for disarming militiamen in Tripoli's landmark Martyrs Square on December 9, 2011. MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

TRIPOLI, Libya - Revolutionary fighters clashed with national army troops near Tripoli's airport, leaving one person dead, officials said Sunday. The violence reflects the difficulties Libya's new leaders face as they try to stamp their authority on the disparate militias that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi.

Army spokesman Sgt. Abdel-Razik el-Shibahy said fighters from the western mountain town of Zintan, who control Tripoli's international airport, opened fire on two occasions on Saturday on the convoy of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, the commander of the fledgling national army.

El-Shibahy accused the Zintan revolutionaries of trying to assassinate Hifter, and said one guard was killed and four others wounded in the second attack. He also said the Zintan fighters mistakenly believed that the army was coming to attack them at the airport, which they have controlled since shortly after the capture of Tripoli in August.

"Zintan rebels opened fire on the convoy from left, right and front," he said. "They think that the army wants to take over the airport but this is not the case."

Khaled el-Zintani, a spokesman for the Zintan fighters, denied they tried to kill Hifter, and blamed the violence on the army's failure to notify them that the general was coming.

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The Zintan fighters, who also control a number of checkpoints on the highway leading to the airport, said Hifter's convoy failed to stop at one of the security posts, and instead sped through it, causing the Zintanis to open fire.

"What do you expect fighters to do when a heavily armed military convoy tries to pass checkpoints without previous notification?" el-Zintani said.

The clashes highlight one of the biggest challenges facing Libya's new leaders — establishing functioning security services, including an army and border guards. Currently, semiautonomous militias that fought against Qaddafi still control key locations, including the capital's airport, and have proven reluctant to submit to the authority of the still weak interim national government.

El-Zintani said the revolutionaries are ready to hand the airport to a government agency "only if it is capable of protecting the airport from intrusions."

Mukhtar al-Akhdar, the Zintan commander at the airport, also rejected the army's authority.

"If this is a real army, why don't they go protect the borders instead of trying to take over the airport?" he said.

Hifter was named to replace military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis, who was killed in late July. Rebels insisted it was the work of Qaddafi's regime but several witnesses said Younis was killed by fellow rebels.

"Until now, we don't know anything about the Libyan national army. Who is in charge, where are the military bases, what is its chain of command or even how can rebels join it?" said el-Zintani, spokesman for the Zintan fighters. "On the ground, the so-called national army is nothing yet."

The Libyan army's leadership appears to have the support of many civilians who are tired of militia-versus-militia clashes and heavily-armed young men roaming the streets. But the fighters so far have refused to disarm, arguing that the military is too poorly organized for them to submit to its authority or keep the nation safe.

The army says that it is trying to persuade revolutionary fighters to return to their homes, and, if possible, to enlist in its ranks. It has stopped short of demanding their weapons until the interim government can deliver on promises of jobs and training.

There have also been concerns following Libya's eight-month civil war about the massive amount of weapons and munitions that have gone missing, many of them taken from arms depots scattered about the country.

On Sunday, a team of U.S. weapons experts disposed of some 1,300 pounds (600 kilograms) of ordnance deep in the sand just outside Tripoli.

"Our goal is to help the Libyan people to secure these loose arms," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Andrew Shapiro, who was on hand to watch along with the U.S. ambassador.

He said that since September, American experts have disabled around 5,000 shoulder-fired missile launchers — weapons that Western and Libyan officials have expressed concerns about because they pose a threat to civil aviation.

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