Conflict & Justice

Tripoli airport taken hostage by gunmen


An unidentified armed man walks towards the arrivals hall inside Tripoli's international airport on June 4, 2012 after it was overrun by the al Awfea militia of Libyan ex-rebels who surrounded planes with tanks, grounding all flights following their leader's apparent arrest, according to officials. The official Lana news agency, citing witnesses, confirmed the 'assault' by gunmen who fired into the air and slightly wounded an airport employee, causing panic among travellers.


Gianluigi Guercia

Tripoli International Airport was surrounded by a militia of Libyan ex-rebels on Monday, blocking air traffic and forcing it to be rerouted to a nearby military base, Reuters reported

The gunmen, members of the Awfea Brigade, were holding the airport hostage with cars mounted with anti-aircraft guns, an official told Agence France Presse, who also said some passengers who had already boarded flights were forced to exit aircraft and leave.  

"There were about 200 of them who came into the airport, they were armed," one Italian passenger who was scheduled to fly out from Tripoli told Reuters. "We were waiting to board our flight and we could hear noises, people shouting." 

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The assault was reportedly launched as a protest against the capture of the group's leader, Abu Ajeila al-Habashi, by unidentified gunmen, Bloomberg Businessweek reported. The gunmen believe that he was taken by Tripoli's security forces, according to Reuters. 

"We are protesting his kidnapping by coming to this airport," Anas Amara, a member of the group, told Reuters. "We have one tank outside the airport and our cars are surrounding the airplanes so they don't fly."

Tripoli's security forces, which answer to the interior ministry, told RTE News that they were not responsible for "the abduction of Colonel Abu Ajela al-Habashi" and that they were searching for him and those responsible for his disappearance. 

Libya's ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) is still struggling to fully integrate the rebel Libyans who fought pro-Gaddafi forces, and the militias have remained organized in armed brigades such as the Awfea Brigade, often using force to ensure law and order in the absence of a functional Libyan police force, according to RTE. 

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The NTC took control of Tripoli airport in April from a coalition of brigades that had been responsible for guarding it since the city was liberated in August 2011, RTE reported.

This is not the first hostage situation at an airport in the capital: In November, a Tunisian passenger aircraft at Tripoli's Mitiga airport was surrounded by around 100 Libyans who were protesting the government by delaying its takeoff, Reuters reported.