By Ali Shuaib
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - The Libyan government took control of Tripoli's international airport on Friday from the militia that has run it since Muammar Gaddafi was deposed last year, an important step in its struggle to assert its authority over numerous armed groups.
The ruling National Transitional Council now faces the challenge of showing it can maintain security and operate the North African country's busiest airport, which reopened last November in the hands of the powerful Zintan militia.
"Tripoli airport is now under the government's control. We have today transferred power to the interior, defense and transportation ministries," Zintan militia spokesman Adel Salama said in a speech at the handover ceremony.
"We hope the government is able to take on and maintain such an important task."
Elders and tribal leaders from Zintan, government and military officials gathered at the airport to witness celebrations for the handover, which followed months of argument about jobs and salaries for the militia's members.
Last time negotiations broke down in March, the head of the 1,200-strong Zintan force, Mokhtar al-Akhdar, stormed out of a meeting and announced he would resign, in a dramatic show of frustration.
Akhdar said the government was not doing enough to provide jobs and security for the fighters who helped topple Gaddafi's government last year. He was later brought back to take charge again until the handover.
At the airport on Friday, deputy interior minister Omar al-Khadrawy said former fighters working at the airport would be absorbed into the interior and defense ministries. But Zintan spokesman Khaled al-Zintani told Reuters they were waiting for an agreement with the government on jobs.
"The leadership in Zintan decided it was time for us to hand over control of the airport because we want to see if the country can take responsibility," Zintani said.
The NTC wants to absorb the militias into the police force and army. But the trickle of people signing up at the Interior Ministry's main recruitment centre in a Tripoli compound showed that most militia members are still reluctant to do this.
International rights groups and the United Nations have identified the militias as one of the biggest challenges to stability as the country tries to build new institutions after 42 years of Gaddafi's rule.
The Zintan militia represents one of the country's best-trained and best-armed brigades, which marched on the capital Tripoli in August and toppled the Gaddafi government.
(Writing By Hadeel Al-Shalchi; Editing by Tim Pearce)