Gunmen tried to kill head of the Libyan land forces, Khalifa Haftar, on Saturday in a bold daylight attack in Tripoil, setting off hours of intense gun battles along the main highway to the airport. Assailants in Tripoli also attacked one of Libya’s largest military bases.
The gunmen were believed to be from renegade groups of former rebel fighters. The violence deepens concerns about unity among the ex-rebels − many of whom remain heavily armed − while the police and military struggle to restructure their forces after the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.
Military officials said revolutionary fighters from the western mountain town of Zintan were likely behind the violence. They spoke on condition of anonymity because an investigation was still under way.
The violence began in the morning with the attack on Haftar’s convoy as it moved from his home in Tripoli to the military headquarters, said a military spokesman, Sgt. Abdel-Razik el-Shibahy.
A group of armed men at a mock checkpoint tried to stop them, but Haftar convoy swerved from the checkpoint and drove over a nearby bridge where they were shot at by two gunmen positioned on the other side, al-Shibahy said.
The military spokesman said no one in the convoy was harmed and soldiers arrested the two gunmen, who are in military custody for questioning.
Minutes later, a second army convoy heading down the same road was ambushed, apparently by the same group of gunmen at another phony checkpoint. Soldiers firing AK-47 rifles wounded two gunmen, al-Shibahy said.
Haftar’s predecessor, military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis, was killed in late July. At the time, rebels insisted it was the work of Qaddafi’s regime, but several witnesses said Younis was killed by fellow rebels.
Near the airport road, gunmen shot at soldiers stationed inside the Katiba Hamza military base, which is used to train Libya’s new army. No one was harmed in the shootout, al-Shibahy said.
By nightfall, gunbattles raged between gunmen and the National Army along Tripoli’s airport road, according to an Associated Press reporter near the scene. A solider who was involved in the battles, Saddam Fakry, said the army also shelled the gunmen’s positions.
Libya’s new leaders have tread cautiously in seeking to persuade former fighters to disarm, stopping short of demanding their weapons until the interim government can deliver on promises of jobs and training.
The night before the attack on his convoy, Haftar told The Associated Press in an interview that he is against forcing fighters to disarm.
“Collecting weapons has to be completely voluntary,” he said, adding that the transitional government should instead reward former rebels for their courage in joining the fight to oust Qaddafi.
“You know, fighters usually get medals of honor for their contribution, or a raise at their jobs,” Haftar said.
Meanwhile, an insider source who kept his identity anonymous, told the Libyan al-Manara Media website that a military force belonging to Haftar stormed into the National Transitional Council’s headquarters in Rixos hotel in Tripoli on Tuesday
The source said that members of the transitional council were shocked especially that Haftar’s forces were heavily armed. He also said that one of Haftar’s men grabbed a mobile phone belonging to one of the hotel’s workers to stop any attempts to leak any pictures of what had happened.
According to the source, the transitional council kept around one $1 billion inside the hotel, and that Haftar demanded five percent of the money to be channeled to launch a national army for him to lead.
It is also an attempt for Haftar to pressure the interim government to appoint him as the chief of staff of the Libyan national army, the source added.
Libya’s new army post-Qaddafi has been recently formed and there is no official figure named as the head of the army yet.
Meanwhile, interim members described it as an attempted coup to bring the army to be in charge of the country.
Other sources said that Haftar’s forces came to offer their security to members of the transitional council instead of that of the rebels.
Haftar was one of Qaddafi’s army commanders in the Chadian–Libyan conflict, he fell out with the regime when Libya lost the war, and sought exile in the United States.
After falling out with the Qaddafi regime, Haftar set up his own militia financed by the CIA, according to the 2001 book Manipulations africaines, published by Le Monde diplomatique.
He came back to Libya to join rebels to oust the Qaddafi regime, and was appointed as the head of the land forces in the national army.