Libya an armed free-for-all teetering towards failed state
Rebel factions which fought together against Gadafy now fight each other
Destroyed vehicles are seen after fighting between Libyan special forces and ex-rebel fighters of the Benghazi Shura Council in the eastern city of Benghazi on July 30th. The self-declared Benghazi Shura Council forces, which includes former rebels and militants from al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, took over a special forces army base on Tuesday after fighting involving rockets and warplanes that killed at least 30 people. Photograph: Reuters
Booms of outgoing artillery shaking the ground, militia fighters from the remote Libyan mountain town of Zintan hunker down in the passenger terminal to defend Tripoli airport, the biggest prize in the capital. Across the city a few kilometres away, a commander of a brigade from the port city of Misurata rallies his men to take the airport back.
Three years ago, Zintani and Misuratan rebel brigades descended simultaneously on Tripoli from east and west to storm the palaces of Muammar Gadafy. Now, fighters from the two towns are waging open war in the capital.
“This war is harder than the revolution,” said Mohammed, a fighter in a unit allied to the Zintanis, standing in the debris of the airport terminal. “They want to take the airport, and when you take the airport you take Tripoli.”
Across the city at his Tripoli base lined with tanks and trucks mounted with cannons, Hassan Shakka, a commander of Misurata’s Central Shield brigade, said his forces were “completing the revolution”.
“We are not fighting the Zintanis: we are fighting the remains of Gadafy’s army,” he said. “There will be no ceasefire until they leave Tripoli.”
Two weeks of shelling have knocked Tripoli airport out of commission. A control centre is damaged, nearly 20 jets parked on the tarmac have been hit, burned or destroyed and the passenger terminal sports a gaping hole in its roof.
Grad missiles roar over the city. Fighters have closed off parts of southern Tripoli with blockades and earth barricades. Apartment blocks on the airport road bear bullet and blast marks. Zintan fighters have set up checkpoints on the empty highway and more are dug in by the airport with anti-aircraft canons.
“It can still be contained. There is room to negotiate, but it is a very delicate situation,” said one Libyan government official. “We are trying to negotiate to slow things down. If it spins too much, you can’t stop it and it becomes a hurricane.”
The war for Tripoli’s airport is not the only war being fought in Libya. A day’s drive away in Benghazi, Libya’s second biggest city, followers of a renegade former Gadafy general are waging street battles against an alliance of militia groups, including Islamist fighters that Washington blames for killing the US ambassador two years ago.
The Benghazi militia alliance has overrun a special forces base and forced irregular forces and the army to retreat. The collapse of Gadafy’s four decades of single man rule has left Libya an armed free-for-all, where cities, regions, charismatic individuals, urban neighbourhoods and rural tribes all field their own armed forces.
Towns fight towns; Islamists oppose nationalists; federalists rise up against central government; ex-Gadafy units clash with former revolutionaries – and everyone has guns, artillery, tanks and missiles, taken from the dictator’s vast arsenals.
Western countries are mostly getting out, shutting and evacuating embassies as the Opec oil exporter teeters toward becoming a failed state. For the past three years, the central government has largely failed to build a national army, instead buying off the loyalty of armed groups by putting individual fighters or whole militia units on to the payroll. Despite taking the government’s money, most remain loyal to their commanders, regions or cities.
UN, US. and European special envoys are pushing for a ceasefire and political settlement around a new parliament due to start its work in August, but negotiations are difficult.
Each brigade claims to be a legitimate armed force authorised by competing factions within ministries or the previous parliament; each claims the entitlement as revolutionary liberators of the capital, and refuses to give up its heavy weaponry.
Libya’s factional rivalries have flared before, only to be restrained by a tenuous balance of power that officials say comes from the knowledge that neither side can overcome the other. For now, the main rivalry in the capital is that between Zintan and Misurata, which both played outsized roles in the 2011 war that unseated Gadafy and parlayed their victory into status as kingmakers.
When Tripoli fell, Misurata and Zintan brigades both rushed in from opposite sides to lay claim to stakes in the capital. Zintan took the civil airport; Misurata and its allies the military airbase.
Prof Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya expert at Dartmouth College in the US, said militias had now crossed a threshold by openly attacking institutions like Tripoli airport that before would have been viewed as out of bounds. “This is much more visceral and it is about the spoils of the state and who will control them. A much larger battle is starting to evolve.”