Dec. 16 (Bloomberg) -- The son of Libya’s top general, Khalifa Hiftar, has been kidnapped and is being held by a militia at Tripoli International Airport, the general said today.
Belgassim Hiftar, 30, was kidnapped as he drove to visit his brother Saddam, who was in a Tripoli hospital after being wounded by gunfire yesterday, said his father.
“My son is kidnapped, he is being held at the airport,” the general said, speaking to reporters in his fortified compound in southern Tripoli. “We have been making phone calls with them this evening, I don’t know what they want.”
The alleged kidnapping comes on the eve of a visit to Libya by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said in Turkey today that the U.S. must give Libya more time to gain control of its militias.
“The last thing you want to do is to try and impose something on a country that has just gone through what the Libyans have gone through,” Panetta said.
Hostilities were declared over in Libya’s eight-month civil war by the ruling National Transitional Council on October 23. Since then, authorities have struggled to rein in the collection of militias patrolling the streets.
In Tripoli, the local council has banned unauthorized militias and set up checkpoints across the city. While violence in the city center has declined, there has been tension between the national army, commanded by Hiftar, and militias from Zintan which seized the international airport from forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi in August.
On Dec. 10, two Zintanis were wounded and the airport closed to international flights after a convoy carrying Hiftar skirmished with Zintan units at the main airport checkpoint, said local media and Zintani soldiers at the scene.
Yesterday, Hiftar’s son Saddam, 24, who is a volunteer with the national army, was wounded in the knee during a gun battle outside Tripoli’s Amman bank. General Hiftar said he did not know the identity of the gunmen who he said arrived in a car and began spraying gunfire.
He wouldn’t he say if he knew the identity of those who kidnapped Belgassim.
The general blamed isolated armed groups for the trouble. “There is no problem with the Zintanis,” he said. “But there are groups, elements that are very bad. I do not know what they want.”
Earlier today, Zintani militia guarding the airport confirmed the gun battle at the bank yesterday.
Saddam “started to fire, he tried to get into the bank with a gun and we stopped him,” said Khalid Al Akraj, a bearded fighter in green fatigues guarding the main airport checkpoint under an overpass.
The commander of the airport garrison, Mustafa Avarbiya, also made no mention of the kidnapping. He said his units would stay in the airport and not join a national army until there were elections -- which are due next June for a constitutional assembly.
“The airport is free and it has to stay free,” said Avarbiya, in an interview at the airport.
“If we leave, they take over,” he said, without identifying the opposing force in question. “The airport is the only thing that connects Libya to the rest of the world, that connects Tripoli to the rest of Libya.”
General Hiftar said he lived for nearly thirty years in Virginia, working in an import-export business, before returning to help support the revolution.
Hiftar said he would be asking French, British and U.S. leaders to sell his army weapons in the near future. “We need the weapons, especially American weapons, they are the most effective,” he said.
--With assistance from Caroline Alexander in London. Editors: Terry Atlas, Steven Komarow
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