* Armed militia seized capital's international airport
* Incident exposed lack of proper state security
* Foreign investors likely to be alarmed
* Government says it handled incident properly
By Hadeel Al Shalchi and Marie-Louise Gumuchian
TRIPOLI, June 5 Invading Libya's biggest
international airport was embarrassingly easy: the attackers cut
the wire perimeter fence in broad daylight, and then drove onto
the tarmac while airport security chiefs stood and watched.
The occupation of Tripoli airport for several hours on
Monday by an armed militia force has compelled policymakers in
Europe and the United States to ask what sort of country they
helped create when they joined the campaign last year to force
Muammar Gaddafi from office.
Libya, home to Africa's biggest proven oil reserves, is free
from Gaddafi's repression, but it is a chaotic country where
nearly a year on from the end of the revolt, the state still
Garbage piles up uncollected in suburban streets, drivers
park their cars in the middle of highways, and, as incidents
like the attack on the airport underscore, rag-tag militias who
answer only to their own commanders are more powerful than the
police and army.
"How can these people ... close the airport like this?"
asked Adel Salama, a civil society activist in Zintan, a town
whose fighters used to control the airport before handing over
to the central government back in April.
"Where is the state?"
On Tuesday, the militiamen who had attacked the airport were
gone and staff were at their posts. An Austrian Airlines jet
took off for Vienna, the first departure since the attack.
Yet foreign investors, who already knew Libya was a risky
place, are now likely to be even more cautious. The incident at
the airport happened the same day that Libyan Deputy Prime
Minister Mustafa Abushagur was in the United States trying to
persuade companies there to come and invest.
"It's a worrying thing for someone who wants to come and do
business here," one foreign businessman visiting Tripoli said.
"I am just happy my investors were not here themselves when this
The attack on the airport was carried out by members of the
al-Awfea brigade, a volunteer militia from the town of Tarhouna
about 80 km (50 miles) south-east of Tripoli.
They believed their leader had been detained by security
forces in the capital and their aim was to take the airport as a
way of pressuring his captors into releasing him. They pulled
out of the airport late on Monday after negotiations.
Details emerged on Tuesday of how close the incident came to
One airport official said an Austrian Airlines jet was about
to take off when the militia arrived, and was ordered by the
control tower to abort. Another official said a bullet had
struck and damaged the side of a parked Alitalia aircraft.
Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A'al told Reuters on Tuesday
that the incident had been handled properly by the government.
"Democracy is still new to the Libyan people and a lot of
people do not know how to use their freedom in the right way,"
he said. "They have demands which they believe are legitimate.
They believe this (trying to seize strategic sites) is the best
way to express their anger."
"The government prefers to use dialogue first, negotiations
to resolve problems," the minister said. "What happened
yesterday is a lesson (to anyone attempting similar protests).
We detained them, put them under investigation, and took their
However, accounts gathered by Reuters from witnesses and
officials point to big holes in the security set-up that was
supposed to protect the airport.
There was a series of mistakes, a lack of proper resources
and the absence of any security coordination: all problems which
have come to typify Libya since the end of Gaddafi's 42-year
Fadel Bin Nusayer, 50, the manager of the airport, said
security staff had no choice but to stand back and let the
al-Awfea brigade drive their pick-up trucks, with heavy guns
mounted on the back, onto the runways.
He said airport security needed more resources to do their
job fully, including more walkie-talkies and vehicles.
"They arrived at the metal fences surrounding the ...
airfield and cut the fence and entered," he said. "Our defence
teams on the ground told their leaders in the watch-towers and
were given orders not to shoot because we didn't want to shed
blood or escalate matters or make civilian travellers scared."
"We ask the government and the prime minister to give us the
extra resources ... so we can avoid a similar situation," Bin
Nusayer said. The incident on Monday was, he said: "A wake up
call to all of us."
Other people familiar with the airport said the militia
should never have been allowed to reach the perimeter fence.
The al-Awfea brigade, in a convoy of about 60 vehicles,
drove to the airport from their base in Tarhouna, a journey that
would have taken them through dozens of security checkpoints.
These though are usually run by local militias and it is
unlikely they would have alerted anyone outside their area about
what was happening.
"Why was nothing done before these people reached the
airport?" asked Salama, the activist from Zintan. "They were
driving from 80 km away."
A spokesman for the Zintan militia which used to run the
airport before handing over to the government said the security
measures in place were woefully inadequate.
Khaled Karr said airport security did not have the
long-range weapons needed to deter attackers before they reach
the perimeter, and were not carrying out regular patrols in the
"We told the government over and over: they do not have the
resources or the capabilities to secure a huge installation like
the airport," he said. "We all know there are issues and
problems and the state is not in control."
SETBACK FOR INVESTMENT
At Tripoli's luxury Corinthia hotel on Monday evening,
foreign business people milled around in the lobby anxiously
trying to find out what was happening at the airport - for most
people the main route out of the country.
Several airlines which operate flights into Tripoli
cancelled them on Monday and now say they will not be resuming
them straight away. These included British Airways,
Emirates and Tunisair. Austrian Airlines
said it was suspending services from Vienna to Tripoli on
Tuesday and Wednesday.
The occupation of the airport will have an impact on the
broader business climate too, said David Bachmann, head of the
commercial section at the Austrian embassy in Tripoli.
"This is a big setback," he said. "It is especially bad for
newcomers. They want to be able to travel to the airport, to
their hotel, and hold meetings safely, but when they hear about
rockets flying at the airport, they won't come."
"It is difficult for someone like myself to try to convince
such companies that this is not a big thing."
Nevertheless, other people who work in Libya were more
sanguine. Libya's economy depends on oil and this sector is
recovering well. Output is back to pre-revolt levels. Foreign
majors, including BP and Eni, are coming back.
And for all the chaos and security shortcomings, most
observers say Libya is making progress.
The disparate groups which hold power show a capacity for
resolving their differences through negotiations, as eventually
happened with the airport stand-off.
The civil war which Gaddafi's exiled children predicted has
not materialised. The country is heading towards its first-ever
election, a landmark event which should give the new authorities
Security too is gradually getting better. The army and
police are recruiting more people all the time, some of their
recruits are being sent for training abroad, and militias are
"The airport incident is likely to scare people at first but
businesses are waiting to see what happens after the elections,"
said a Western diplomatic source. "I don't think it will deter
them in the long run."