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A year after uprising, militia gangs hold sway in Libya

By MAGGIE MICHAEL

February 17, 2012

TRIPOLI, Libya • One revolutionary militia controls the airport. Others carve up neighborhoods of the Libyan capital into fiefdoms. They clash in the streets, terrifying residents. They hold detainees in makeshift prisons where torture is said to be rampant.

As Libya on Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the start of the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi, hundreds of armed militias are the real power on the ground in the country, and the government that took the longtime strongman’s place is largely impotent, unable to rein in fighters, rebuild decimated institutions or stop widespread corruption.

The revolutionary militias contend they are Libya’s heroes — the ones who drove Gadhafi from power and who now keep security in the streets at a time when the police and military are all but nonexistent. They insist they won’t give up their weapons to a government that is too weak, too corrupt and, they fear, too willing to let elements of the old dictatorship back into positions of power.

"I am fed up," said the commander of a militia of fighters from the western mountain town of Zintan who control Tripoli’s airport. Al-Mukhtar al-Akhdar says Libya’s politicians unfairly blame the militias for the country’s chaos while doing nothing to bring real change.

They believe "revolutionaries have no place in Libya now," said al-Akhdar, who was once a tour company owner in Zintan until he took up arms against Gadhafi and now sports a military uniform. "We paid a very heavy price in the revolution, not for the sake of a seat or authority, but for the sake of freedoms and rights."

As a result, Libya has been flipped upside down, from a country where all power was in the hands of one man, Gadhafi, to one where it has been broken up into hundreds of different hands, each taking its own decisions. The National Transitional Council, which officially rules the country, is struggling to incorporate the militias into the military and police, while trying to get the economy back on its feet and reshape government ministries, courts and other institutions hollowed out under Gadhafi.

In one sign of the lack of control, Finance Minister Hassan Zaklam admitted that millions of dollars from Gadhafi family assets returned to Libya by European countries — a potentially key source of revenue — have flowed right back out of Libya, stolen by corrupt officials and smuggled out in suitcases through the ports.

"The money comes for transit only," Zaklam said in a Feb. 6 interview on Libya state TV. He threatened to resign if the government didn’t impose control over ports or stop unfreezing the assets. "I can’t be a clown," he said.

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