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Libyan army commander survives gunbattle.

Summary: A convoy carrying one of Libya's most senior military leaders was involved in a gunfight between rival armed groups overnight near Tripoli's international airport, local militia commanders said Sunday.

TRIPOLI: A convoy carrying one of Libya's most senior military leaders was involved in a gunfight between rival armed groups overnight near Tripoli's international airport, local militia commanders said Sunday.

It was the latest in a series of clashes between rival militias which, in the absence of a fully functioning central government, wield the real power on the streets in Libya since a revolt forced out former leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Two commanders said the clashes began when a vehicle carrying Khalifa Haftar, head of ground forces in the Libyan national army, approached a checkpoint about 3 kilometers from the airport which was manned by militiamen from outside Tripoli.

"Khalifa Haftar and his convoy came to the checkpoint and did not stop when they were asked to," Colonel Mukhtar Fernana, who said his militia was at the scene of the clashes, told Reuters.

"When they [the men at the checkpoint] tried to stop them, Haftar's guards opened fire and injured two people," he said.

He said Haftar's convoy was then pursued to the nearby Hamza military camp, which his forces were using as a base, and a second gunfight broke out. A second militia commander, Abdullah Mohammed Attroudi, confirmed that account.

Ahmad Bani, a spokesman for the fledgling national army, said "rogue militias" were to blame and that the government would redouble efforts to clamp down on unofficial armed groups.

"Some rogue militias tried to attack General Haftar," Bani said.

"An investigation has started. The Libyan army will never let this matter happen again C* We are going to clear the city of weapons," he added.

Haftar himself could not be reached for comment on the incident.

He was one of a group of Libyan military officers who carried out the 1969 coup which brought Gadhafi to power. He later fell out with the former Libyan leader, and spent the past 20 years living in the United States.

He returned to his native Benghazi, in eastern Libya, when the revolt broke out there in February this year, and was a commander of anti-Gadhafi forces in the east of the country.

The army spokesman said Haftar was now commander of ground forces. It was unclear what that involved as the national army has not yet been officially created.

Earlier, a commander of the militia guarding the airport, Mukhtar Al-Akhdar, said the gunfight broke out because a convoy of national army vehicles arrived at the checkpoint and said it was taking over control of airport security.

He said the row was defused after intervention from Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of Libya's interim leadership the National Transitional Council (NTC), as well as from Prime Minister Abdul-Rahim al-Qeeb and Defense Minister Osama Al-Jawali.

Most militia leaders say publicly that they are ready to do so as soon as they receive the order from the NTC.

But the national police and army are still being formed, and squabbling over who will hold the key posts could heighten the tensions between the militias even further.

Abdul-Hafiz Ghoga, vice chairman of the NTC, said that two of the militias in Tripoli had already been given a date by which they should leave the city.

"Once the army is rebuilt, the NTC will make a declaration for the submission of weapons and for individuals to enter the army or security forces," he said Sunday in Doha.

Meanwhile, a top US official said Sunday that a team of U.S. and Libyan bomb disposal experts has secured about 5,000 surface-to-air missiles.

"We have identified, disbanded and secured more than 5,000 MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems), while thousands more have been destroyed during NATO bombing," Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs told a group of reporters.

Dozens of these missiles were detonated along the shore facing Sidi Bin Nur village, east of Tripoli, as Shapiro, on a one-day visit to Libya, witnessed the event from a nearby secured house.

A joint U.S. and Libyan team of bomb disposal experts has been working for several months now to find these missing missiles which are seen as potential threat to civil aviation.

Separately, Libya's new rulers said Saturday they are ready to forgive Gadhafi's forces who battled rebels trying to topple his autocratic regime during the brutal revolution.

"In Libya we are able to absorb all. Libya is for all," Abdul-Jalil said in Tripoli as he launched a national reconciliation conference organized by the NTC.

"Despite what the army of the oppressor did to our cities and our villages, our brothers who fought against the rebels as the army of Gadhafi, we are ready to forgive them," he said.

"We are able to forgive and tolerate," he added.

Copyright 2011, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:6LIBY
Date:Dec 12, 2011
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