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Libya militias taking law into own hands

Many of the fighters that pushed Muammar Qaddafi from power have refused to stand down. Now, some of Libya militias are allegedly stealing and targeting Qaddafi supporters for revenge.

By Gert Van LangendonckCorrespondent / November 4, 2011

A revolutionary fighter sits over an anti-aircraft machine gun in a pickup truck in Tripoli, Libya, in this Sept. 29 file photo. More than two months after the fall of Tripoli, Libya's new leaders are still struggling to secure massive weapons depots, stop the smuggling of munitions out of the country and disarm thousands of fighters who brought down Muammar's Qaddafi's regime.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP/File

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Tripoli, Libya

How do you ask a group of armed men if the rumors that they’re a gang of ordinary thieves are true? You begin with a joke.

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“Is it true that you guys stole an elephant from the Tripoli zoo, took it back to Zintan, and mounted an antiaircraft gun on its back?”

Mohamed Kor, a stern, bearded commander of the Zintan Brigade, can’t help but chuckle.

“I know we have a bad reputation,” he says in his office in Rigatta, a luxury beachfront compound in West Tripoli, where the fighters from Zintan have taken up residence. “We get called every day by people who say that fighters from Zintan are stealing. But it’s not true. These are common criminals who abuse the name Zintan because they think it will protect them. As soon as we catch them we will expose them to the world.”

And no, he adds, “the elephant really wasn’t us.”

Maybe not, but heavily armed militias like Mr. Kor’s are very much the elephant in the room of post-Qaddafi Libya.

The new Libya is dominated by militias like the Zintan Brigade. They participated in the liberation of Tripoli in August and they never left. Now that the fighting is over, most militias won’t give up their guns. Accusations of mafia-style behavior are growing, as are worries that inter-militia fighting could break out before the new Libya is even born.

Saying that the fighters from Zintan, a small town in Libya’s western mountains, have a bad reputation is putting it mildly. The word “Zintani” has replaced the word “thief” in Tripoli street slang.

They are far from the only armed group around.  On Sunday, Oct. 30, a firefight broke out between fighters from Zintan and Misurata; a Zintani was killed. Zintan fighters then followed an ambulance carrying a wounded Misurati, seeking to execute the man in revenge. That didn’t happen, but on Monday another firefight broke out outside the hospital, wounding four.

That same day, a small demonstration in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square protested against the continued presence of heavily armed fighters in the capital. Growing numbers of ordinary citizens fail to see why fighters should still be tearing around in pickup trucks with antiaircraft guns mounted in the back.

Scorched earth

The battle-hardened fighters from Misurata have, if anything, the worst reputation of the lot.

Few cities in Libya suffered as much during the war as the western coastal town of Misurata, where more than 1,000 people were killed during a months-long siege by Muammar Qaddafi’s troops.

As a result, Misurata’s fighters feel they are accountable to no one, not even the country’s interim government.

They say they’ve earned the right to do what they like, and are showing some disturbing tendencies distinctly at odds with the pro-democracy aspirations voiced by Libyans, who have already paid dearly for Mr. Qaddafi’s overthrow.

For instance, the men from Misurata have unilaterally declared that the inhabitants of Tawargha, a mostly black neighboring city where many people stayed loyal to Qaddafi, will not be allowed to return. Fighters from Misurata have chased the residents of Tawargha all over Libya, arresting them in refugee camps and jailing them in Misurata. Last week, they began burning houses in Tawargha to make sure that nobody returns.

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