By George Grant and Rida Akil.
Tripoli, 6 June:
Fresh details have emerged about Monday’s clashes at Tripoli airport between government forces and Tarhouna’s Al-Awfia brigade, as well as the events that preceded them on Sunday.
The airport was captured by members of the Al-Awfia brigade early on Monday afternoon, before being retaken by government forces after sustained fighting later in the day. The brigade had occupied the airport in retaliation for the abduction of its commander, Abu-Alija Habshi, a day earlier.
It is now understood that shortly prior to his abduction, Habshi had left Tarhouna for Tripoli with the intention of handing over two of his brigade’s tanks to the ministry of defence. However, he was stopped at a government checkpoint on the approach to Tripoli and informed that the tanks could not be brought into the capital without relevant documentation from the military council in Tarhouna.
Having left the tanks at the checkpoint where they were stopped, Habshi headed back to Tarhouna appently to collect the documentation but was abducted not far away on the same road. Speculation has emerged that the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) was responsible for the kidnapping, after having been informed of Habshi’s whereabouts and his intentions by the guards at the checkpoint. The Libya Herald has also been informed that Habshi may now be dead, although this has not been confirmed.
The SSC has denied that it had anything to do with Habshi’s disappearance, and has said that it is currently looking for those responsible.
It is still not known why Habshi was abducted, but many in Libya believed that he had links with militia in the town of Bani Walid, many of whom have been reluctant to support the new government. It is understood that at the same time as the Al-Awfia brigade approached the airport, some 150 military vehicles also left Bani Walid, heading for Tripoli in support of the Tarhouna brigade’s airport attack. However, they turned back after being intercepted by government helicopters from Misrata.
Yesterday evening, the Libya Herald was granted access to Tripoli’s Metiga airbase, where 115 members of the Al-Awfia brigade are currently being held in two separate facilities. A small and unknown number of militiamen are also being held separately by forces from Zintan under the control of the defence ministry. It is understood that almost all the brigade at the airport were captured following their surrender to government forces on Monday.
According to Abdul Rauf Karah, the commander of the SSC’s Souk Al-Juma brigade, some 3,000 personnel were dispatched to recapture the airport on Monday, with approximately 1,500 from the SSC, which is under the control of the interior ministry, and another 1,500 from the ministry of defence. The forces were armed with 14.5mm heavy machine guns and 23mm anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back of dozens of 4x4s, along with small arms.
“When we arrived at the airport, we found that the Al-Awfia brigade had divided itself into two groups,” Karah said. “One was situated inside the airport, and the other around the perimeter. As we approached, the forces from Tarhouna opened fire on us, and we returned fire. Six of my men were hit in the fighting, and my own vehicle took two bullets to the windscreen, which thankfully was made of bullet-proof glass.”
It is understood that preceding this exchange, the Al-Awfia brigade had been given an ultimatum to surrender by Defence Minister Osama Juwaili, but that this had been ignored.
“In all, we were fighting for about an hour”, said another SSC member, Mohammed Salem Shibl. “The Al-Awfia forces eventually surrendered because they were surrounded and overwhelmingly outnumbered”. Asked how government forces succeeded in capturing the Al-Awfia tank, Shibl says it was caught from behind. “It was approached when its turret was facing in the opposite direction from us”, he said. “The gunner attempted to turn the turret round, firing once into the air as he did so, but he did not react in time”. Footage of the captured vehicle shown to the Libya Herald appears to show the tank situated on one of the roads adjacent to the airport perimeter.
In addition to the six men from the Souk Al-Juma brigade who were shot, it is also known that four Al-Awfia brigade members were hit. All of the men are currently receiving treatment in Souk Al-Juma hospital. It is not known if any of the injuries are life-threatening.
Both Shibl and Karah, along with other forces at Metiga airbase, also claimed they found green flags inside some of the Al-Awfia vehicles, which they insisted was evidence of counter-revolutionary sympathies. When the Libya Herald was shown some of the captured vehicles on the base, a set of green combat fatigues with Qaddafi-era insignia was found in the back of one, although no flags. Both the authenticity of the uniform, and the veracity of the claims that this and other items were found on the Al-Awfia brigade, are impossible to verify.
Whilst on the base, the Libya Herald was permitted to speak to five of the men captured at the airport. After giving their names, however, all but one denied that they were involved in the fighting, claiming instead that they were wrongfully picked up outside the airport perimeter by government forces. The fifth man admitted he did come with the brigade, but said he was with the vehicle assigned to bring water, and that he was simply following orders. Three of the men, including the one from the water car, were dressed in combat fatigues; the other two were dressed in civilian clothing.
When asked if the prisoners had been interrogated, Ashraf Saleh Al-Nakli, the prison commander, said that they had not. “We are not authorised to interrogate the prisoners here”, he said. “They will shortly be transferred to the government to be interrogated by them”. Al-Nakil insisted that the prisoners were being well fed and treated properly, although the Libya Herald was not permitted to enter the prison facility itself to verify this. However, none of the prisoners questioned showed any visible signs of mistreatment, and all were provided with coffee during the interviews.
Whilst the prisoners would not discuss how they succeeded in breaking into the airport, one of the airport guards who was on duty at the time was more forthcoming. “Myself and three colleagues were patrolling the perimeter when the brigade arrived”, said Abdel Hakim Al-Jerby. “We stopped them and asked them what they thought they were doing. They said they were taking control of the airport. We were outgunned and could do nothing. They beat us with the butts of their rifles, and one of my colleagues was shot in the leg. After that, they made us lie in the grass where we remained until the government forces arrived.” Al-Jerby had a gash above his left eyebrow, an injury he said he sustained during the confrontation. When asked whether the Al-Awfia brigade offered to treat his wounded colleague, Al-Jerby said not, explaining that he had used his own jacket as a makeshift bandage.
“What happened yesterday took us by surprise; we didn’t think something like this could happen”, he said. Al-Jerby conceded, however, that the airport was only lightly defended. “We have five guards in each of the airport’s seven towers”, he said, “and ten at each of the four gates. We use only small-arms… we don’t have heavy weapons”.
It is understood that the airport now has a much heavier security presence in the wake of Monday’s incident, although exact numbers are not presently known.
Coming just a few weeks before nationwide elections, there is widespread shock and anger in Libya that such an incident should have happened. The anger is directed not only at members of the Al-Awfia brigade for their actions, but also at the government for failing to ensure that the airport was properly secured. International coverage of the occupation and the subsequent conflict has been widespread, and many fear that Libya’s reputation, including with potential foreign investors, could have suffered accordingly.