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Defense Posts In Libya's Rival Governments Illustrate Country's Decline


We've seen over the past several days how unrest in the Middle East is far from contained to Iraq and Syria. There was the video released late Sunday apparently showing the brutal beheading of 21 Egyptians, Coptic Christians, kidnapped in Libya by the self-declared Islamic State or ISIS.


And in the past day, Egypt's military has kept up its assault on targets inside Libya, bringing the war on ISIS to North Africa. Egyptian state television has reported strikes on training camps and storage sites for weapons.

MONTAGNE: The execution of those Coptic Christians, purportedly on the shores of Tripoli, is the latest sign of Libya's collapse. We'll hear next from two men who illustrate the country's disintegration since Western powers helped oust Moammar Gadhafi in an uprising that began four years ago today. Both of these men are genial and eager to talk to the world, and they hold the same job. Unfortunately, that job is defense minister in rival governments at war with each other in a country where extremism is thriving in a security vacuum. NPR's Leila Fadel recently visited both sides.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: We start in the west of Libya in the capital, Tripoli, at the government offices currently inhabited by an unrecognized government. Khalifa Ghwell, the defense minister, greets us. There's a piece of paper printed out and taped on the door with his title. Now, he's supposed to be in charge of this government's armed forces, but he has no military background. He's an engineer.

So how many men come under the Ministry of Defense - are on the salary of the Ministry of Defense?

KHALIFA GHWELL: It's different, sometimes between 10,000 up to 15,000.

FADEL: No wonder he doesn't know if he has 10,000 or 15,000 men. They're really a loose alliance of militias called Libya Dawn that won a battle for Tripoli over the summer. They include some radical Islamists, but say they're fighting against forces from the old regime. And Ghwell says his motley crew will prevail.

GHWELL: (Through interpreter) There is a force that can win this war. But we are careful because we don't want bloodshed.

FADEL: It's hard to see how blood could be spared when he openly states their plan to take over all of Libya. The problem with Libya today is that the militias that Western powers helped oust Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 kept their weapons and kept fighting. They're tribes, Islamists, former officers, but they don't seem to fight along clear lines of ideology and politics as much as just turf, money, oil and power.

Here in Tripoli, they unified against a common enemy - a defector from Gadhafi's army named Khalifa Hiftar, who commandeered much of the military and air force and lead a coalition against what he says is Islamist extremism. Hiftar is loosely allied with the other government in the East. His planes have bombed cities. In Tripoli, they hold protests against him on the street.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in foreign language).

FADEL: The speaker yells death to Hiftar. People walk around with plastic boxes to collect money for the war effort. Meanwhile, the capital is without any real security force, kidnappings are common and extremism is thriving in the vacuum. The lawlessness provides fertile ground for armed radicals to operate across Libya. This weekend, the self-proclaimed Islamic State posted a video showing the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians who had been working there. The U.N. is trying to bring order through peace talks between East and West. Ghwell says his side is open to dialogue, but no one wants to negotiate with Hiftar.

GHWELL: (Through interpreter) Hiftar is a wanted man. Would you dialogue with a criminal?

FADEL: Hiftar's side in the East could make similar accusations about the Western coalition. Among the fighters allied with the Western government is a group called Ansar al-Sharia. Ghwell calls them nice guys. But they're implicated in the the 2012 attack in Benghazi that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. I head to Hiftar's turf in the East. You can still fly there from Tripoli.

MASSOUD MUFTAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: In the eastern city of Bayda, we meet Massoud Muftah. He holds the same position as Ghwell - defense minister - but for the Eastern government, which is barred from Tripoli by their rivals in the capital. His office is in an old agricultural research building that houses the eastern cabinet. The government was chosen by the elected parliament and has international recognition.

MUFTAH: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Muftah defected from Gadhafi's army in the early days of the 2011 revolt. Now his soldiers are old fellow officers and new volunteers. He says they're fighting terror, but his side has also bombed an international oil tanker and threatened at least one other. He defends that.

MUFTAH: (Through interpreter) They are bombing us, and we are bombing them back.

FADEL: He laughs at the threats of his Western counterpart Ghwell.

MUFTAH: (Through interpreter) They dream they have a government. I'll leave them to dream.

FADEL: Now, he says, his government is trying to form its own central bank and oil company. And Massoud says right now Libya isn't really a state.

MUFTAH: (Through interpreter) A state is made up of land, people and power. We have the land and we have the state, but we can't pretend that we have the power.

FADEL: Even in the East, he has no control. Recently, gunmen stormed this defense minister's hotel room.

MUFTAH: (Through interpreter) I was kidnapped. It happened two weeks ago.

FADEL: The suspects were from his own coalition, Hiftar's men, who also tried to snatch the East prime minister. While Hiftar is supposed to be an ally, he's also a rival. It's looking like a coup within a civil war - an attempt to take power that right now no one really has. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Libya. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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