Libyan government retakes airport from militia

Libyan rebels secure a runway at the airport in Tripoli on August 24, 2011. Rebels said the complex was still under sporadic attack by regime loyalists, with snipers along the road from the capital. FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

(AP) TRIPOLI, Libya - Libya's government has retaken control of the country's main airport from disgruntled militiamen who stormed the Tripoli site with heavy machine guns and armored vehicles on Monday, Libya's interim leader said.

In an interview with the Arabic satellite channel Al-Jazeera, the head of the country's National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, said the airport was attacked and held for several hours because it is "a strategic facility," vowing it would not fall out of government control again.

"The attack on the airport is dangerous, but we dealt with it as a government, military and revolutionaries with intelligence," he said.

He declined to explain how the airport was overrun with such ease Monday afternoon, saying only that "we have to be peaceful and diplomatic" about how to handle the country's various problems.

The militiamen from the city of Tarhouna had stormed the airport, forcing airport authorities to divert flights. The assailants occupied the airport runway and flights were diverted to Metiga air base in the city's center, Mohammed el-Gharyani of Tripoli Security Committee said.

Tunis Air announced Monday that it had canceled two flights to Tripoli in response to the violence at the airport and was waiting to see how the situation evolved, the company said in a statement.

Abdul-Jalil and el-Ghayrani both said the militiamen were angry over arrest of their commander, Abu Oleija al-Habishi, on Sunday.

Tarhouna in central Libya was widely seen as a favorite of deposed ruler Moammar Gadhafi. Its dominant tribe, also called Tarhouna, held many positions in the Libyan military under Gadhafi. The city's residents are viewed with suspicion by former rebels.

Tribal rivalries have swept Libya since Gadhafi was overthrown last year. Much of the fighting has pitted militias that fought Gadhafi against those who remained loyal to his regime.

The Tarhouna group has been engaged in sporadic clashes with other militias from cities like Misrata and Tripoli. Al-Habishi was arrested in Tripoli, according to el-Gharyani, but circumstances of his arrest were not immediately clear.

The attack on the airport came just two weeks before the date of the country's first general elections since 1969, when Gadhafi took over power in a military coup. On June 19, Libyans are scheduled to elect 200-member assembly to oversee writing a new constitution and form a government.

Election commission and government officials have recently given contradictory statements about the possibility that elections might be delayed, given the fragile security situation in Tripoli and many other cities.

Also, there have been calls to boycott the election in the eastern part of the country, where the uprising against Gadhafi started. Many easterners are demanding more representation in the assembly.

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