News / Africa

Power Struggle Blights Libya's Chaotic Main Airport

Passengers wait for their flights in the departure hall at Tripoli International Airport in Tripoli, Libya, March 21, 2014.
Passengers wait for their flights in the departure hall at Tripoli International Airport in Tripoli, Libya, March 21, 2014.
Reuters
With a bomb on the runway, pets boarding planes and passengers jetting off without visas, Tripoli International Airport typifies the chaos that has gripped Libya since the 2011 ouster of Moammar Gadhafi.
 
Western powers and Libya's neighbors worry the capital city's airport could be a gateway for illegal immigrants, including militant Islamists, from Africa and conflict zones such as Syria.
 
Morocco has just introduced visa requirements for Libyans after one group of travelers arrived on forged Libyan passports, and some European and Arab airlines have stopped flying to Tripoli for security reasons.
 
The European Union is training officials and helping upgrade facilities at the aging airport, a former British military base from World War II, but a few new luggage scanners won't address the underlying security problem - a government that is struggling to impose its authority on a country awash with arms and militias.
 
Like much of the North African country, the area surrounding the airport is controlled by one of the dozens of brigades of rebels that helped overthrow Gadhafi and have refused to give up their arms.
 
Political analyst Salah Elbakhoush said the airport was in the middle of a power struggle, with other armed groups, residents and civil aviation staff challenging the control of the militia from Zintan in western Libya.
 
“People are fed up with them,” he said. “The situation west of Tripoli (near the terminal) ... is very dangerous. The government is too weak to do anything.”
 
Nightly shootouts have become more frequent in the area, making the airport road one of the most dangerous places in the capital, where security has deteriorated in recent months.
 
Whoever controls the airport, located about 30 kilometers (18 miles) outside Tripoli, gets access to business at the terminal, which is a main cargo and smuggling hub.
 
Diplomats say the struggle between militias explains a bomb explosion on the main runway in March. An unknown group has claimed responsibility for the attack on social media, though the government has not said who was behind it.
 
“The device was planted at 05.30 a.m. when there was no traffic, to avoid any casualties but to probably show the Zintanis are unable to provide security,” said a Western diplomat.
 
Poor equipment
 
The interim government is trying hard to boost airport security, but its nascent security forces are still in training, and the loyalty of some is questionable.
 
Security staff include former police officers from the Gadhafi era along with newcomers from civil war militias integrated by the government to get them off the streets.
 
They wear official uniforms but in practice sometimes report to their militia commanders, tribes or families. “You cannot walk into the airport perimeter, plant a bomb on the runway and fire it from outside by remote control without some people looking the other way for some time,” said another diplomat.
 
Experts say the airport has nevertheless come a long way since the immediate aftermath of the NATO-backed uprising in 2011, when anyone could walk into supposedly controlled areas.
 
The EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM) and foreign airlines are focusing on small steps to improve security such as more efficient passport controls and better organization of the terminal.
 
The airport has introduced security zones requiring passes to regulate access to the most sensitive areas near the gates, said its security chief Taha Mahmoudi.
 
“We have made a lot of progress in the 18 months,” he said, though limited space at the small terminal handling both international and domestic flights remained a challenge.
 
Imposing order is no easy matter. Those coming to greet friends and relatives often walk past officers into restricted areas such as baggage reclaim or even up to passport control on the first floor.
 
Passport officers, some dressed in uniforms for different services, others in civilian clothes, have computers at their booths but rarely use them because most never had proper training, security experts say.
 
EUBAM trainer Andrew Lyttle said officers were still good at spotting forged Libyan passports or Egyptian workers arriving on fake Libyans visas, their main areas of concern.
 
“They even once caught me because my papers were not in order,” said Lyttle, who trains airport officers on the job.
 
Officials also hope a new electronic passport being rolled out will end a thriving illicit trade in Libyan travel documents. The current passports are handwritten and easy to forge.
 
Flights halted
 
Still, Western diplomats and security experts have no illusions about the challenges, describing airport security as a “nightmare” or “disaster”.
 
“The Libyans basically don't know who is entering or leaving their country,” said one Western diplomat.
 
Even if luggage or passport checks were enforced, the equipment is not up to the task.
 
“The present scanners have no explosive detection systems,” said Jean Assice, a French civil aviation engineer whose firm represents nine European and American security equipment manufacturers active in Libya.
 
“The luggage surveillance is out of date, the video surveillance system is out of date,” Assice said. “Ninety percent of the cargo is not controlled.”
 
Germany's Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines have halted flights, handing over lucrative business - a return flight costs up to $1,000 thanks to a risk premium from Tripoli to, say, London or Frankfurt - to more intrepid carriers such as Turkish Airlines, which has increased flights.
 
Abu Dhabi-based Etihad stopped flying in November, saying “the existing situation at Tripoli airport does not provide the level of assurance we require to ensure safe operation of our flights”.
 
Officials see it as a success that British Airways and Alitalia decided to resume flights after weeks of interruption following the runway bomb.
 
Authorities have promised more dog patrols at the perimeter to better protect the runway, while the European airlines already get a little more space for their own staff to conduct extra luggage checks.
 
The European carriers arrive in the early afternoon, a time when a maximum number of airport staff are on duty and the city is often quiet - shootings tend to happen after sunset.
 
There are also more Libyan officials visible at the check-in counters to verify travel documents after European governments complained people had been allowed to board illegally without visas, while others had brought banned pets.
 
“We have been focusing on the weak points,” said airport security chief Mahmoudi. “The airport is old, space is limited. We're trying to make the most of what we have.”

You May Like

Video British Fighters on Frontline of Islamic State Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign jihadists More

Pakistan's Political Turmoil Again Shines Spotlight on Military

Thousands of protesters calling for PM Sharif to step down continue protests in front of parliament, as critics fear political impasse could spur another military coup More

Photogallery Ebola Quarantines Spark Anxiety in Liberian Capital

Food prices rise sharply as residents attempting purchases clash with security forces, leaving one person dead More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid