Libyan authorities have wrested back control of Tripoli International Airport from ex-rebels who occupied the runway, surrounding planes and grounding all flights in response to the disappearance and possible arrest of their commander, officials said.
It took until Monday evening for the authorities to regain control of the airport when transitional government forces stormed it after negotiations with the fighters broke down, Omar al-Khadrawi, deputy interior minister in Libya's transitional government, told journalists.
Flights were not expected to resume for at least 24 hours because of the damage caused to the airport's infrastructure.
A government official said the group, called al-Awfiya Brigade, from the town of Tarhouna, 80km southeast of the Libyan capital, was demanding the release of their leader who they said disappeared two days ago.
The official news agency LANA, citing witnesses, said that the motive of the brigade was to pressure the government to explain the whereabouts of their commander, Colonel Abu Ajila al-Habshi.
LANA said the armed men fired into the air, slightly wounding an airport employee and causing panic among travellers.
Al Jazeera's Omar al-Saleh, reporting from Benghazi, said the group had heavy weapons and was not allowing flights to land or take off, forcing the diversion of all flights.
A Libyan government official earlier told the AFP news agency that "cars mounted with anti-aircraft guns and armed men [surrounded] the aircraft and [prevented] them from moving", adding that some passengers were forced to leave planes.
Sporadic shooting was heard just before sunset but it was unclear whether it was a two-way exchange of fire or a bid by the newly arriving forces to force the brigade out of the airport.
A member of a Tripoli brigade said the gunfire was just a "scare tactic".
'Assault on the state'
Ali al-Sheikhi, an army spokesman quoted by LANA, said that "negotiators were trying to persuade the assailants to leave the airport through pacific means in order to avoid the use of force".
He denounced al-Awfea Brigade's offensive as an "assault on the state and its institutions".
Mohammed al-Harizy, a spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), said Habshi was kidnapped by unknown armed men while travelling between Tarhouna and Tripoli.
He also said that an investigation had been launched to determine the circumstances of Habshi's disappearance.
Tripoli's security commission, which answers to the interior ministry, said it had nothing to do with "the disappearance and abduction" and that it was still tracking those responsible.
The NTC is still struggling to fully integrate many Libyans who fought forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, the longtime ruler who was overthrown and killed in October last year.
The former rebel fighters have remained in organised armed brigades, taking it upon themselves to ensure law and order in the absence of fully functional police and armed forces.
Monday's incident at Tripoli airport comes as Libya prepares to hold elections for a 200-seat constituent assembly later this month, although an official said that the ballot would be delayed until the first week of July at the earliest.
Violent incidents, such as a deadly raid on the government's headquarters last month, have raised concerns over the capacity of authorities to secure the first election after decades under Gaddafi's rule.
Ethnic unrest in the south, calls for greater autonomy in the east, and corruption are just some of the challenges facing the NTC.
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|William A. Cook|
|Timothy V. Gatto|