AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Heavy fighting between rival militia groups rocked the Libyan capital today. Anti-aircraft fire lit up the sky, grenade explosions and gunfire echoed for hours in the streets of Tripoli. More than two years since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, is Libya slipping into anarchy? Analysts say yes, describing a North African nation that's awash with heavy weapons, and those weapons are in the hands of militias that are divided by tribe, ideology and region.

The central government has little power over the gunmen. That was made clear last month when the prime minister was kidnapped by one militia and freed by another. NPR's Leila Fadel went to Libya and sent this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: We start in Zintan. It is a mountain town in northwestern Libya. There are about 50,000 people here. It is a place of gray and brown buildings with little infrastructure. The central government doesn't provide basic services, not even water. People use wells to provide for themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: The local council runs all of Zintan's affairs out of this building in the center of town. And, as in much of Libya, the central government has zero power here.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: We head to the local militia base on the outskirts of Zintan.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: There, we meet the keeper of Saif el-Islam Gadhafi, the son and one-time heir apparent of Moammar Gadhafi. Saif is wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The central government wants him to stand trial in the capital. But the commander of Zintan's militia, Ajmi al-Atiri, won't give him up.

AJMI AL-ATIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Ajmi says, we caught Saif and we're responsible for him.

AL-ATIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He says, the government in Tripoli isn't worthy of taking him off our hands.

AL-ATIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Ajmin al-Atiri is a small man in his 50s. He was a teacher when Gadhafi demanded volunteers from Zintan to fight rebels in the east. Al-Atiri and the rest of the town refused and launched their own rebellion against the Libyan leader who was slain by revolutionaries just over two years ago.

AL-ATIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Now, al-Atiri is Zintan's boss. He and his men are paid by the state. But like most of Libya's militias, they are loyal mostly to themselves. There are men like al-Atiri across the country who believe they know what's best for Libya. They are former teachers, engineers and political exiles whose power is now unrivaled and who are unwilling to relinquish it to the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

FADEL: Just this week, rival militias engaged in an hours-long shootout in Tripoli, captured by cellphone cameras posted on YouTube. Without security, the organs of the state barely function.

AL-ATIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Ajmi says government leaders spend their time fighting over power and money, and they're trying to use the militias to get what they want. He scoffs at other militias, calling them criminals. He says his own militia is different. It's looking out for Libya.

AL-ATIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: But he says this is not the Libya he fought for in the uprising against Gadhafi. Back in Tripoli, we meet the justice minister Salah Bashir Margani in his office.

I tried to meet you last time I came, but you were in the middle of a crisis.

SALAH BASHIR MARGANI: Well, we are still in the middle of a crisis.

FADEL: And you're still...

(LAUGHTER)

MARGANI: No change.

FADEL: For Margani, every day brings a crisis. He escaped a kidnapping attempt in September. In the spring, he was kicked out of his office by militias demanding passage of a law that put hundreds of judges out of work. Last month, he worked the phones urgently after Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was briefly kidnapped by one militia and freed by another.

MARGANI: When I called the attorney general at 5 a.m. saying, have you arrested the prime minister? He said, what?

(LAUGHTER)

MARGANI: Of course, he said, no, I didn't. Do you think I'm crazy?

FADEL: Margani laughs a lot. It masks the deep worries he has about the future of Libya. The government, he says, needs to secure the country. But right now, it just can't.

MARGANI: This is the real danger, that whatever we do is absorbed by the deterioration and the situation we deal with, next day, we have the next crisis. It's like waking every morning asking, what kind of disaster do we have today?

FADEL: The state has no viable security forces, so the government doesn't have the ability to rein in the militias. So they act as the country's de facto security forces. They basically run the two security ministries. Margani says hopes for judicial and other reforms are on the back burner while the militias act with impunity.

MARGANI: The idea is that we should not allow Libya to slip into chaos or to slip into, say, a Somalia-like situation or an Afghanistan-like situation. This is too bad for Libya.

FADEL: And Libya, he says, desperately needs help.

MARGANI: We are like someone who's drowning but he can see the shoreline. So we're trying to swim to that shoreline. That's why we need help.

FADEL: Help he hopes to get from the international community. He says some 18,000 Libyans will be trained - some in the U.S. - to become Libya's new army and police force. But in the interim, militiamen with anti-aircraft guns roam the streets.

MARGANI: They are still committing very bad things, like murder, torture, all evil things that those young guys shouldn't be doing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: Back on the streets of Tripoli, there are militia checkpoints everywhere, manned by former rebels from different parts of the country, carving out their own little fiefdoms. And ordinary Libyans are getting sick of it, and their anger is not just directed at the militias.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: Outside the parliament building, a female protester screams into a bullhorn. The members of parliament are monsters, she says. They're ruining our country.

The economy is suffering and the nation is fracturing, says Human Rights Watch Libya researcher, Hanan Salah. She says part of the problem is NATO helped Libyans remove Gadhafi but then did very little to help secure the borders, secure weapons or rein in the thousands of armed men who fought.

HANAN SALAH: If you look at the political situation, you have a very weak government that is, you know, hardly able to implement any of what it should be doing. And it's certainly not in control of its own institutions.

FADEL: And, she says, there is a real danger of total anarchy. Leila Fadel, NPR News.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.