As Libya dithers, fighters take on security role
TRIPOLI, Nov 17 ― At the Mellitah Oil & Gas facility, a joint venture between Italy’s oil major Eni and the Libyan national oil company, fighters from the mountain city of Zintan stand guard.
Deep in the Sahara desert, 700km south, another brigade of fighters from Zintan ― a city which prides itself as being one of the first to rise up against Muammar Gaddafi ― say they are securing the Akakus oil field in the absence of a national army.
Some of the fighters who ousted Gaddafi are not prepared to wait for their interim government to form a cabinet and begin the long task of rebuilding a functioning state. They are doing it for themselves.
Armed militias are acting as a pseudo-police force: setting up road checkpoints, directing traffic and arresting those they regard as criminals.
Groups of fighters from Misrata, 190km to the east of the capital, have joined some Tripoli brigades to guard the naval base where several military ships that escaped the bombing by NATO during the war are docked.
At the Akakus field, fighters are positioned around the main facility, armed with heavy machine guns and rockets.
“The protection of this field is by Zintani fighters to prevent looting,” said one guard at the gate to the field, which stands in a vast expanse of sandy desert.
All of the militias claim loyalty to the National Transitional Council (NTC), which promises to lead Libya towards participatory democracy, but also to the clans, towns or regions from which they hail.
Fighters give different reasons for not handing in their weapons and returning home.
Some say they are being paid by their commanders or are worried that a pro-Gaddafi insurgency will break out while the country is still weak. Others say they have a moral commitment to serve Libya, even unofficially.
But there are suggestions the militias also want to wield political leverage over the emerging government.
Starting an air force
While officials hold secret meetings in Tripoli to decide on high-level positions, Colonel Abdullah al-Mehdi is trying to get the air force back in the air.
“People are crossing the border illegally from Niger and Mali. They are smuggling drugs and attacking oil fields to steal cars and equipment,” Mehdi, from Zintan, told Reuters as he flew his favourite aeroplane from Gaddafi’s defunct Libyan air force, a twin-engined Russian military transporter.
“We need to position planes at airports around the country to patrol the border.” He said he intends to move some fighter jets from the capital to the border town of Ghadames and the southern desert city of Sabha.
“Two jets here, three there,” the 49-year-old said.
Shouting over the roar of propellers, Mehdi says he has been transporting fighters and weapons to Libya’s borderlands and worked as an air ambulance.
And more frequently now that the eight-month civil war has ended, he has ferried representatives of the interim government around the country to aid the reconciliation with tribes who fought for Gaddafi.
“I also run a prison,” he added. Who Mehdi is working for is unclear ― both the defence and interior ministers are yet to be appointed ― but he collaborates with the Tripoli Military Council, the armed wing of the NTC.
“What ministry, I am the ministry,” Mehdi said, a broad smile emerging under his thick, greying moustache.
With Gaddafi gone, Mehdi wants to reach out to the leaders of neighbouring Mali and Chad to deal with drugs and weapons smuggling, before taking a holiday in Russia.
“I haven’t had a day off or been paid for eight months,” the pilot said in English.
“F--- money, we killed Muammar Gaddafi.” ― Reuters