Libyan Militia Stand-Off Shows Challenges for New Government

One of Libya's most-powerful militia groups issued a 24-hour ultimatum to a rival in a stand-off underlining the challenges facing the country’s fledgling democratic institutions.

As election officials in the capital Tripoli prepare to release full results from the country’s first free election in more than 40 years, militia units from the city of Misrata told a rival armed group in Bani Walid to hand over two journalists arrested at the weekend or face attack, said Ali Al Suweli, leader of Misrata’s largest political party, the Union for the Homeland.

“We are not doing anything until Thursday, that’s very important,” said Suweli in a telephone interview. “We still have 24 hours.” In the meantime, the Misratans had moved forces including heavy artillery to Bir Durfan, outside Bani Walid, he said.

The standoff underlines the fragile security of post-revolutionary Libya, where there have been clashes between rival militias in recent weeks in Kufra and Sabha in the south, Benghazi in the east, Zintan in the west and at Zuara on the Tunisian border. Protesters last week closed three oil ports, to complain at what they say is economic and political marginalization of Libya’s oil-rich eastern province of Cyrenaica, cutting crude exports by about 300,000 barrels a day.

Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council, which is due to hand over power to the newly elected national assembly in the coming weeks, has been unable to persuade the majority of Libya’s militias to join its national army.

Last Resistance

The government “can impact security only through developing relationships with militias,” Crispin Hawes, director of the Mideast and North Africa program at the Eurasia Group said in an interview. “The new national security forces cannot go toe-to-toe with the militias and disarm them. The militias will be absorbed when they want to be absorbed, which is when they have got what they think they are due from the government.”

Misrata, a coastal city 120 miles west of Tripoli, provided militiamen who fought alongside rebel forces in last year’s uprising. Bani Walid, 90 miles south east of the capital, remained loyal to the Muammar Qaddafi and was one of the last centers of resistance to fall to rebels during last year’s uprising.

Suweli, whose party took the city in July 7 elections, said he was trying to mediate a peaceful settlement after Misratan journalists Yusuf Baadi and Abdul Fusuq were arrested in Bani Walid on Sunday.

Prisoner Swap

Bani Walid’s leaders proposed a prisoner swap, with the journalists exchanged for 120 prisoners-of-war from Bani Walid still held by the Misratans, reported the Libya Herald newspaper.

While Libyan Prime Minister Abdurahim El Keib yesterday called for the journalists to be freed, Suweli said the government lacks security forces capable of intervention and is itself reliant on militias. “The government has no forces, it has nothing it can do, it cannot go inside Bani Walid.”

In January, Bani Walid forces attacked a government unit in the town, expelling it, and triggering a two-week standoff between pro-government militias that was later resolved without bloodshed.

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