Tripoli - It will take weeks to rid Libya's streets of the militias that ousted Muammar Gaddafi, and months to form an army fit to take their place, Defence Minister Osama Al-Juwali said on Monday.
His comments signalled a rift with others in Libya's interim leadership who have called repeatedly for the heavily-armed militias that swept into Tripoli in August to quit the capital and set them a deadline of the end of this month.
“I think this issue will be resolved in a month-and-a-half, approximately. I'm not setting any deadlines,” Al-Juwali said in an interview with Reuters.
Two months after Gaddafi was captured and killed, real power resides with the militias that ousted him and have since carved up the country and capital into competing fiefdoms, each holding out for the share of power they say they are owed.
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Al-Juwali was endorsed by Libya's National Transitional Council as defence minister in November, thanks largely to the clout wielded by the rebels he commanded in the western mountain town of Zintan.
The Zintan fighters played a major role in the fall of Tripoli. They now control the international airport and the fate of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the ousted leader's most prominent son, who was captured by Zintan fighters on November 19.
Without a fully-functioning army or police, Libya's interim government is struggling to stamp its authority on the oil-producing North African country.
Senior officials, including commanders of the nascent army, have called on the gun-toting militias to return to their homes, and the council in Tripoli has set a deadline of end-December.
Zintan fighters have already fought gun battles with the commander of Libyan ground forces and his sons. The army spokesman blamed “rogue militias” and said they would “clear the city of weapons.”
But Al-Juwali conveyed no sense of urgency. He said the government was working on a plan, but provided few specifics.
“There is a general plan to bring the fighters in,” he said.
“Part of them will join the defence ministry, others the interior ministry. There is another plan at the Ministry of Labour to rehabilitate and train these fighters, and I think this plan will be approved soon.”
He spoke in the offices he shares with Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib.
Zintan fighters filled the corridors. The man who piloted the Antonov that brought Saif from the desert where he was caught to his cell in Zintan had swapped his green flight fatigues for a sharp, black suit.
“I think the army will be ready to take on its responsibilities before the end of the transitional government,” said Al-Juwali. The interim government is due to rule until an election mid-next year.
Al-Juwali said the government was analysing the needs of the national army and what hardware it might seek from abroad. He mentioned military transport planes, specifically US-made C-130 transport aircraft.
In the meantime, the Western powers behind the NATO air war against Gaddafi's forces are pressing for the weapons that swept through the country to be secured and accounted for, fearing they might fall into the hands of radical Islamists.
“Libya could enter the Guiness Book of World Records, it has so many weapons,” Al-Juwali said. “By the time this government ends, we will have the weapons under control and in safe places, and the revolutionaries (former rebel fighters) will help collect them.” - Reuters