* Warning issued after outbreak of violence in Tripoli
* Rival militias are a challenge to government's authority
* Libya's new rulers want them to merge into national army
* Militias vying for political power in new Libya (Updates with quotes,
By Mahmoud Habboush and Ali Shuaib
TRIPOLI, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Libya risks sliding into civil war unless it
cracks down on the rival militias which filled the vacuum left by Muammar
Gaddafi's downfall, the head of the interim administration said after an
outbreak of violence in the capital.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC),
issued the stark warning in response to a gun battle between militias in one
of Tripoli's busiest streets which killed four fighters.
More than two months after anti-Gaddafi fighters captured and killed the
former dictator, Libya's new rulers still struggle to exert their authority
as rival militia leaders refuse to cede control of their fighters and hand
in their arms.
"We are now between two bitter options," Abdel Jalil told a gathering in the
eastern city of Benghazi late on Tuesday.
"We deal with these violations (clashes between militias) strictly and put
the Libyans in a military confrontation which we don't accept, or we split
and there will be a civil war."
"If there's no security, there will be no law, no development and no
elections," he said. "People are taking the law into their own hands."
The militias, drawn from dozens of different towns and ideological camps,
led the nine-month uprising, backed by NATO air strikes, to end Gaddafi's
42-year rule. Now though, they are reluctant to disband and lay down their
They are vying with each other for influence, and believe that to ensure
they receive their due share of political power they need to keep an armed
presence in the capital.
The NTC has begun to form a fully functioning army and police force to take
over the task of providing security. Abdel Jalil acknowledged though that
progress has been too slow.
"We have no security because the fighters have not handed over their weapons
despite the chances they've been given to do so through local councils," he
said. "The response has been weak so far, people are still holding on to
Tripoli is now an unruly patchwork of fiefdoms, each controlled by a
different militia. Police are rarely seen - except when directing traffic -
and there is no sign of the newly created national army.
Although their presence on the streets significantly declined towards the
end of last month, militias still occupy security compounds previously used
by Gaddafi's forces. Their presence increases in the streets of Tripoli as
Tripoli has two main home-grown militias. One is led by Abdel Hakim Belhadj,
an Islamist who spent time in Taliban camps in Afghanistan and now runs his
militia from a suite of rooms in a luxury Tripoli hotel. The other is headed
by Abdullah Naker, a former electronics engineer who is openly disdainful of
There are also the militias from outside town. Fighters from Zintan, an
anti-Gaddafi bastion south-west of the capital, control the international
Militias from the city of Misrata, east of Tripoli, have mostly withdrawn
from central Tripoli but keep a presence in the eastern outskirts of the
city. Fighters from the Berber, or Amazigh, ethnic minority mark out their
territory with their blue, green and yellow flags.
Another set of fighters from the east of Libya, the original heartland of
the anti-Gaddafi revolt, add to the mix. The closest to the NTC's leaders,
their ambitions to form the core of the new national army irk their rivals.
Until Abdel Jalil issued his warning about the militias, most senior
government officials preferred to avoid the issue.
"What militia?" Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib told Reuters this week
when asked about the rival groups.
"Look around you! ... We're building the Libyan National Army and we want to
guarantee that this army is effective when we need it," he said.
The militias are united by their shared experience in fighting Gaddafi.
Their leaders profess loyalty to the NTC, and say they want to work together
to build a new, democratic Libya.
This is a fragile unity which breaks down whenever one group impinges on the
territory of another. Flare-ups in violence are most commonly triggered when
fighters refuse to submit to checks when passing through a rival group's
checkpoint, or when one group detains fighters from another militia.
The spark for a gunbattle in Tripoli on Tuesday was, by some accounts, the
arrest by a Tripoli militia of several fighters from Misrata. The arrested
men's comrades attacked the building where they were being held using
anti-tank weapons and heavy machine guns.
"Some of them screamed 'We're from Misrata, you dogs!' while they were
firing," said a Tripoli fighter.
On Wednesday, a few guards carrying semi-automatic machine guns stood
outside the compound on Zawiya Street which had been the focus of the
fighting a day earlier.
Militia vehicles that had blocked the intersection leading to the compound
had been removed and the street, lashed by heavy rain, was mostly empty.
But the potential for outbreaks of violence remains.
"The tension will always arise because there are many groups," said Hakim
Abdul Rahman Hammad, a former military pilot who now heads the military
council of Tobruk, a city on Libya's border with Egypt.
"There are many armed groups and there might be interaction among them that
ends up in confrontation," he told Reuters.
The militias' dominance in Libya has now reached a crucial crossroads, with
the appointment this week of a chief of staff for the new national army.
Until now, the militias have said they cannot surrender their weapons and
allow their fighters to be absorbed into the army because the command
structure was not in place.
By naming Yousef al-Manqoush, a retired general from Misrata, as head of the
armed forces, the NTC presents the militias with a choice - they must either
start ceding control to the army or openly defy Libya's leadership.
In an interview broadcast on Libyan television, al-Manqoush said the
mechanism for absorbing former militia fighters into the military would be
"My message to the revolutionaries is ... they have to prove to the world
once again that they are patriotic Libyans, prove to world that they will
integrate into the state's institutions and work on building a strong
national military," he told Libya Al Hurra television station.
But the militias will require convincing. One member of Misrata's military
council said he was still not sure the time was right for the militias to
relinquish their role.
"When the state proves it's able to take responsibility to protect border
and secure the country, then we will hand our arms," said the council
member, Fethi Bashaga.
Naker, the head of one of Tripoli's two main, home-grown militias, said he
welcomed the appointment of an army chief of staff and said he would
cooperate with him.
But he too, had conditions for handing over weapons and advising his men to
join the national army.
"We will do so after we guarantee the revolutionaries' rights and their
salaries," he told reporters on Sunday.
"We gave them the absolute freedom to join the military, the police or hand
their arms and take up a civilian job, but before we hand them (fighters and
weapons) over we want a mechanism, we want to know how much they will be
paid," Naker said. (Additional reporting by Taha Zargoun in Tripoli and
Mohammad Al Tommy in Benghazi, Libya; Writing by Mahmoud Habboush and
Christian Lowe; Editing by Louise Ireland)
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Received on Wed Jan 04 2012 - 16:07:56 EST