About 5,000 rebels have joined Libya’s nascent national army but more of the militias that have dominated the country since the revolution must sign up if the armed forces are to reassert their authority, the new chief of staff said.
The militias, which fought to unseat former leader Muammar Gaddafi, are now the biggest threat to the stability of Libya, clashing regularly with each other in violent turf wars and undermining the authority of the new rulers.
Libya’s interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), wants to amalgamate the militias into the police force and army. NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil warned last month that if they did not comply, the country risks being dragged into a civil war.
Drawn from dozens of different towns and ideological camps, militias are reluctant to lay down arms they believe will help them secure their due share of political power in the new Libya.
The NTC named a chief of staff, Yousef al-Manqoush, last month and set up a committee to register former fighters and help them to either join the army or police forces or offer them the financial means to start new lives as civilians.
“More than 100,000 rebels from all over Libya have registered with the combatants’ committee that deals with the rebels on an individual level and not as groups,” Mustafa al-Saqizly, the head of the committee, told a news conference late on Tuesday.
Of those, Manqoush said 5,000 rebels joined the army in an official ceremony on Tuesday and would begin their training in March. About 400 had completed training to join the police.
It is not clear how many fighters there are in Libya’s many militia units, but they could number in the hundreds of thousands.
Those that have turned up to seek jobs in the new police force or army appear to be from smaller militias that did not have the resources to make a bid for power, rather than the heavily armed and well-organised militias that are the biggest headache for the NTC.
Mokhtar al-Akhdar commands a 1,200-strong force drawn mainly from Zintan, which now controls Tripoli airport. Speaking to reporters at the airport on Wednesday evening, Akhdar said the NTC had failed to provide jobs and security and that the rebels were so far working without pay to secure the country, making it difficult for the militias to give up their guns.
Once there was a functioning police force of at least 10,000 men, they would consider giving up their own weapons, Akhdar said, complaining about a recent incident in which members of his militia had been detained by a rival group in Benghazi in apparent response for a previous clash.
Such altercations have become a daily occurrence in Libya, while the poor state of the armed forces under Gaddafi has also posed challenges for the NTC.
Gaddafi distrusted the military and effectively dismantled the armed forces in the 1990s, leaving them with few arms or personnel, placing real power in the hands of his own militias which moved swiftly to crush protests against him in February. A large number of military officers defected in the early days of the uprising and barracks were overrun by rebels.
Manqoush said the new Libyan army also needed graduates to join a new 8-10 month officer training scheme aimed at creating a smaller professional army to replace the sprawling but disorganised force of old.
“The army is an institution that cannot be built in a matter of days. We need time,” Manqoush said.
“The more we support the national army, and people rally around it and offer it the necessary support and cooperation the more we reduce the need for armed groups … We must cooperate with the army to help them regain the military barracks and equipment.”