Africa

Battle of wills over control of Libya's border crossings

Zintan militia commanders at Tripoli airport (man with beard is Abdelhakkim Sheibi)
Image caption Libya's government is trying to assert itself and wants former rebel fighters, such as those in Zintan, to join a national defence force

Libya's interim government has set a deadline for militia groups to relinquish control of the country's border crossings by the end of the week.

Many of Libya's international gateways are still controlled by brigades of former rebel fighters.

A spokesman for the interior ministry told the BBC they must all be in government hands by Monday.

The issue is becoming part of a battle of wills between Libya's politicians and the young men who fought the revolution.

It is the latter who have the upper hand.

Tripoli International airport is getting busier every day, as Libya emerges from civil war.

When Tripoli fell to rebel forces in August 2011, it was fighters from the small town of Zintan, south-west of the capital, who rushed in to secure the airport.

Six months later, they are still here.

"Nearly all of us are from Zintan," says Abdel Hakim Sheibi, one of the commanders in a force of around 1,200 men.

He's a broad man wearing combat fatigues and, somewhat incongruously, blue suede boots.

He and his men say they are loyal to the interim government. But they are not under its control. Nor are they being paid.

"We don't expect anything from the government, even though they've promised to pay us. We're used to them saying one thing and doing another. Even under Gaddafi it was the same."

Actually, some of the fighters in Abdel Hakim's brigade do get paid.

He himself was once an officer in Col Gaddafi's military. When the revolution broke out last year, he joined the rebels in Zintan.

He continues to receive a military salary.

Others who once held government jobs are in a similar position: they continue to be paid, even though they no longer work in their old jobs.

But this applies to only a handful of Abdel Hakim's men.

Image caption Control over the airport is seen as an asset in the struggle for political control in Libya

The rest rely not on the new Libyan state, but on donations from the Zintan brigade to feed themselves and their families.

And that it part of the problem.

The government is trying to assert itself. But it lacks authority. It wants former rebel fighters to join a national defence force.

But Abdel Hakim and his men simply don't trust the government. Not yet.

They believe they are still needed to prevent Libya's international gateway from falling into the wrong hands.

"We will hand over control of everything once the country is back on its feet, but not before," he says.

Fearsome reputation

"We will never let the country fall back into the hands of 'climbers'", he adds, using a word that has come to refer to profiteers and opportunists, people whose allegiance during the revolution was dubious.

"On behalf of all the former rebel forces, I say we will crush with an iron fist anyone who tries to destroy the revolution."

Zintan's various brigades control more than just Tripoli airport.

Image caption On Zintan's streets, horsemen in traditional clothes mix with the traffic

They control security for at least one bank and an Islamic centre in the capital, as well as several oilfields in the southwest of the country.

Nestled in the foothills of the Nefusa mountains, with a population of no more than 50,000, Zintan has become a force to be reckoned with.

It is a place where modernity and tradition live side by side.

Men on horseback share the roads with pickup trucks, some with anti-aircraft guns still welded onto the back.

Ask Zintanis about their town and they will quickly tell you about the colonial period, when their forefathers fought against the Italians.

But it was during last year's revolt against Col Gaddafi that Zintan gained its current fearsome reputation.

Ibrahim al-Madani lost his father in the revolution. He is now one of the town's most respected commanders.

"It's a small town," he said, "but [fighting] is in our blood."

"Even our grandfathers fought until the end. When you give your blood for Libya and Libyan people, I am happy for that."

The power that men like Ibrahim al-Madani now enjoy is forcing even global players to take note.

Last weekend, when the BBC visited Zintan, a tent had been erected on the brow of a hill on the outskirts of town.

Inside, was the French defence minister, Gerard Longuet.

Image caption Legacies of combat remain scattered around Zintan

He had come to meet his Libyan counterpart, a Zintani himself, as well as local commanders including Mr Madani.

"My desire is to pay homage to the Libyan fighters in the places where the resistance proved to be decisive," he told the BBC.

The mood was upbeat, as the dignitaries sat on rugs on the floor eating a traditional dish of lamb stew and mountain truffles. The talk was of co-operation.

Not far from where the French defence minister was enjoying his lunch, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi is being held in a secret location.

The former Libyan leader's most prominent son is wanted by the International Criminal Court. His captors want him to stand trial in Zintan.

Saif al-Islam, Tripoli airport, the banks, the oilfields: these assets are valuable bargaining chips in the new Libya.

Come Monday, it's unlikely the Zintanis will be ready to relinquish them.