Libya on Tuesday named Yousef al-Manqoush, a retired general from the anti-Qaddafi bastion of Misrata, as head of the armed forces in the first significant move to build a new Libyan military.
The appointment was announced as four fighters were killed in a gunbattle between rival militias in Tripoli, underlining the interim government’s difficulties in controlling the increasingly fractious groups who toppled former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
More than two months after he was captured and killed, real power remains in the hands of the militias, who have carved up Libya and its capital into competing fiefdoms, each holding out for the share of power they say they are owed.
To help reinstate law and order, the interim government plans to integrate thousands of former rebels in the military, the police and other civilian jobs. Some militia chiefs say they will only cede command of their fighters once an organized military and security apparatus is in place.
Manqoush’s appointment by National Transitional Council (NTC) chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil could pave the way toward forming a structured military, but it is not clear yet whether militia commanders will accept him.
His prospects could be boosted by the fact that he hails from Misrata, besieged for months by Qaddafi’s forces and home to a number of the militias that helped to topple him and now seek what they see as a fair share of power. Rebels from Misrata in particular hold a vast arsenal of tanks, rockets and guns.
Militias were given a Dec. 20 deadline to leave the capital and have dismantled most of their checkpoints and limited their presence on Tripoli’s streets, but crucially kept some bases.
Tuesday’s battle on Tripoli’s Zawiya road was the first involving militias since Dec. 11, when soldiers from the new national army failed to wrest control of Tripoli’s international airport from a militia force from Zintan.
Former rebels from Tripoli controlling a security compound in the capital fought off dozens of fighters from Misrata who were trying to seize a group of prisoners in a gunbattle that lasted more than an hour, medics and former rebels said.
“Some of them screamed ‘We’re from Misrata, you dogs!’ while they were firing,” another Tripoli fighter said. “They wanted to take them [the prisoners] by force, they used 106mm [rocket] launchers and 14mm machine guns.”
Afterwards, armed men combed central Tripoli looking for Misratan fighters. A witness saw them capture one man, and kick and punch him as he was marched into the compound.