News / Africa

    Libya's Main Airport Reopens After Militia Raid

    Airport officials negotiate with members of al-Awfea militia on the tarmac of Tripoli international airport in this still image taken from video June 4, 2012.
    Airport officials negotiate with members of al-Awfea militia on the tarmac of Tripoli international airport in this still image taken from video June 4, 2012.
    Libya's main airport in Tripoli reopened Tuesday with the departure of an Austrian airliner, following a seizure of the facility by disgruntled militiamen.

    The Libyan government said it retook control of the airport late Monday, hours after militiamen from a central region stormed the runway to protest the disappearance of their leader.

    Pro-government militias initially responded to the airport seizure, disarming some of the assailants and forcing others to flee before handing control of the site to state security forces.

    Dozens of gunmen from the Libyan town of Tarhouna had seized the airport by driving armored vehicles onto the tarmac, surrounding foreign airliners to prevent them from departing and forcing passengers to leave the planes.

    The head of the Austrian embassy's commercial section, David Bachmann said most of the passengers were local and international business people.

    "Of course, they were not delighted, but they were not panicking," said Bachmann.  "It's not like you have a holiday flight to Nairobi and suddenly the airport gets hijacked or whatever.  People are expecting things to happen when they come here."

    The gunmen said they raided the airport to pressure Libya's ruling National Transitional Council to explain the whereabouts of their commander Abu Ajila al-Habshi. Some accused Tripoli authorities of detaining al-Habshi on Sunday.

    Libya's state-run LANA news agency said the NTC condemned both the storming of the airport and what it called the abduction of al-Habshi. It said Libyan authorities were searching for the missing militia leader.

    Libya has been plagued by confrontations between rival militias since many of them united to overthrow autocratic leader Moammar Gadhafi last year. Many militiamen have refused to lay down their weapons or become fully integrated into Libya's security forces.

    Bachmann said Libyan government efforts to improve security in the country have encouraged foreign airlines such as Alitalia, Austrian Airlines, British Airways and Lufthansa to resume expensive and profitable flights to Tripoli.

    But, he said Monday's storming of the airport by militiamen may make other airlines hesitant.

    "We are trying to encourage people to come here and, of course, those happenings don't improve the image too much," Bachmann added.

    The unrest at Tripoli's airport comes two weeks before Libya plans to hold its first free national elections since Gadhafi seized power in a 1969 coup.

    Libyans are set to vote on June 19 for a 200-member assembly to write a new constitution and form a government.

    There have been reports this week that the election could be delayed several weeks. But a Libyan government spokesman said Tuesday that the vote will go on as scheduled.

    Sami Zaptia, publisher of the independent Libya Herald newspaper, said that the government hopes the democratic process will teach Libyans to air their grievances through democratic means rather than armed protest.

    "That's why the government has pointed out, once, twice and three times or more that we're now in a democracy," said Zaptia.  "It's a new democracy.  You have the right to dissent.  You have the right to abstain.  If you don't like what the policies are you can object, but there are rules to the game.  Democracy is not chaos.  It is not a free-for-all. "

    Zaptia said Libya's recent experience of 40 years of dictatorial rule means it will be very difficult for people to learn the habits of democracy.

    Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.


    Michael Lipin

    Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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