Libya in chaos, airport attacked, elections postponed

Panic in Tripoli. Passengers get off planes, Italians safe

04 June, 19:22

Checkpoint in Tripoli, Libya Checkpoint in Tripoli, Libya

(ANSAmed) - ROME, JUNE 4 - There have been scenes of panic at Tripoli airport today, as armed militias attacked the building, forcing the authorities to divert arriving aircraft to the nearby military airport, while planes on the runway awaiting take-off were surrounded and passengers forced to disembark or leave the waiting room. There is also great uncertainty over the date of elections in the country, which were scheduled for June 19, though Al Jazeera and sources contacted by ANSA say that they are now expected to take place in the first week of July.

The militiamen, travelling in armoured pick-up trucks, attacked the airport this morning, firing a number of shots and lightly injuring one official.

One Alitalia flight was due to leave from the airport at the time, but the company has said that no passengers boarded the aircraft. After receiving the order to disembark, the captain secured the aircraft. Carabinieri from the Tuscania Regiment subsequently escorted the captain and four flight assistants to a hotel. The armed group, known as the Al-Awfea Brigade, and hailing from Tarhuna, a town 80 kilometres south-east of Tripoli, is demanding the release of one of its leaders, who "disappeared" last night. The Tarhuna rebels are viewed with suspicion by other armed brigades - the tribe had a prominent role in Libya under Gaddafi and many of its members occupied key positions in the former leader's regime.

Calm was restored after a few hours, with the spokesperson for Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC), Mohamed al-Harizi, hastily announcing the opening of an investigation into what he called the "kidnapping" of Colonel Abouajila al-Habchi, the leader of the Tarhuna militia. The man was seized last night by unknown forces. The military council in the capital has said that it has nothing to do with his disappearance. The situation was extremely tense last night, with tanks surrounding the area.

Attempts at mediation by the NTC's deputy Foreign Minister, Abdul Karim Ahmed Bazama, who vainly tried to appease the militiamen, were ultimately futile.

Today's incident is just the latest in a series of episodes in a country that appears to be drawing closer to chaos and is incapable of building a solid post-Gaddafi period.

The keenly awaited election of the country's Constituent Assembly "will be postponed at least until the first week of July," government sources told the Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera, which pointedly quotes the deputy chair of the central electoral commission, who resigned a few weeks ago.

"Holding the elections on June 19 is mission impossible," Sghair Majeri has said earlier, resigning due to his conviction that the elections would not be held in the planned timeframe. Checks, printing of ballot papers and their distribution will take time "at least 4 weeks, so they will not be held before July, perhaps not until the second week," he added.

The postponement is due to procedural problems. Over 4,000 candidates are running for 200 seats in the Assembly and the authorities "need more time to examine the candidates' bids", Al Jazeera reports. Sources contacted by ANSA have confirmed that July 10 could be a possible election date, only 10 days before the start of Ramadan. (ANSAmed).

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