By Michel Cousins.
Tripoli, 20 April:
Zintan militiamen who have been holding Tripoli International Airport since liberating it eight month ago finally handed it over to the Libyan government today.
In a well-attended ceremony near the terminal building, the airport was formally give to the Minister of Transport Yousef Al-Wahashi who thanked the Zintanis for all they done in the past eight months. Also attending were Deputy Interior Minister Omar Hussain Khadrawi, Defence Minister Osama Juwaili, who prior to being appointed to the post last November was head of the Zintan Military Council, and Mokhtar Al-Akhdar who was in charge of the Zintani militiamen at the airport until last month.
Initially, there were 20 Zintan brigades at the airport and securing a 50-kilometre perimeter around it. They involved several thousand Zintanis. These have whittled down to just one last brigade of 800 men — the one that today vacated the airport.
There is still mystery over whether any of the militiamen will be given any jobs there. Previous planned handovers had failed because of the government’s refusal to accede to their demands that they be re-employed at the airport. Last month, Al-Akhdar quit his role there and left with about 400 brigadesmen when a handover collapsed at the 11th hour over the jobs issue.
It had been reported that as the price for today’s handover, the government had agreed to employ 300 brigadesmen at the airport. Both sides, however, denied this today.
Al-Akhdar told Libya Herald that he had asked for 300 airport jobs, working with customs, the police, security and the like. “Some of the men like working here,” he said. “But I don’t know [the response]. It’s not been decided yet.” He himself was going back to Zintan and hoped that the government might want to use his skills helping patrol the country’s desert border. He would not be joining the army or police.
A member of the departing brigade likewise said that no jobs had been offered. “Nobody has been promised anything,” said Fawzi Shantah. “I feel that the government does not want us.”
Four times the men had been asked to fill out forms, he said, but nothing had happened. He said that he himself did not want a job; he was going to reopen his two wholesale cleaning items shops in Tripoli that had been shut since the revolution started. But it was only natural that some of the men wanted to stay. “We’ve been here for eight months. We like the place. We want to stay,” he said.
He was not optimistic that those taking over the airport would do as well as the brigadesmen. “It will not be well controlled by the government,” he said.
Transport Minister Al-Wahashi similarly told Libya Herald there had been no specific deal — only the promise that the government would treat them like all Libya’s revolutionaries. “They all deserve for the government to look after them,” he said. The government would work to provide jobs for all of them including training “inside and outside” the country.
Thanking the Zintanis for keeping the airport “safe and secure”, he was more than satisfied that it would remain so under government control.
From Deputy Interior Minister Khadrawi there was the same generalised promise that brigadesmen would be absorbed into the interior and defence ministries.
There was one discordant note at the ceremony. The Zintani official who formally announced the handover angrily accused Prime Minister Abdurrahim Al-Kib for previous delays in handing the airport over. He said that it was not true that Zintan did not want to hand it over. It was, he said, the prime minister’s fault. In what some people attending saw as a direct challenge, he added that both the prime minister and NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil would be responsible for anything that happened at the airport after the takeover.
The ceremony was, however, a very much upbeat event. Almost everyone spoke of it in positive terms, as a major sign of normalisation.
A member of the Ben Ghashir local council which covers the airport spoke at the ceremony thanking the Zintanis for their presence over the past eight months. If his statement seemed more a formality than an expression of genuine gratitude, that would not be surprising. Ben Ghashir is home to many airport workers whose livelihoods have been affected by the takeover.
“This is an important day for us,” said Ben Ghashir resident Mohamed Barghout, who with others from Ben Ghashir attended the ceremony. “We’ve been waiting for it for a long time.”
Outside the airport, there were the usual checkpoints but it was significant that, finally, the people manning them were from the army, not from Zintan.