BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — Libya's leader acknowledged Monday that his government has failed to act quickly to restore stability, just as at least 20 people were killed in tribal battles in a southern city.
The deadly clashes underlined the fragile nature of Libya after the fall of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi. The central government has been unable to impose its authority even in the capital, and Libya is ruled instead by squabbling tribes and militias.
Libya's National Transitional Council chief Mustafa Abdul-Jalil was welcomed as a well-intentioned figure when he took over from Gadhafi last year. Even he agrees now with critics that his government is not providing strong enough leadership.
"I am not satisfied with the performance of the government or the NTC, because it is too slow in making decisions and is weak and lacks confidence in its decision making," Abdul-Jalil told The Associated Press on Monday during a visit to the eastern city of Benghazi.
He said incompetent ministers may be dismissed in the coming months, but he gave no specifics. A 200-member assembly elected in June has the job of appointing new Cabinet ministers.
The NTC leader was in Benghazi to discuss a recent decision by eastern leaders to form their own semiautonomous state, known as Barqa. The state would have its own parliament, police force, courts and capital in Benghazi, the country's second largest city.
Though organizers deny it, the move carries with it the possibility that Libya might break up into at least two states.
As Abdul-Jalil was visiting the city to try to blunt the repercussions of the decision, the country was facing a variety of other problems.
In the southern city of Sabha, 400 miles (650 kilometers) south of Tripoli, clashes erupted after a man from the Tabu tribe allegedly killed a member of the Abu Seif tribe.
Surgeon Ahmed Ali al-Hefnawi said most of the 20 dead fighters were killed by gunfire. Ahmed al-Hamrouni, a former rebel commander in the city, said the tribes were fighting with automatic rifles and rockets with a range of 10 kilometers (six miles). The tribes were fighting in the city's main streets, and black plumes of smoke could be seen rising from Sabha's airport as well, he said.
According to Hassan Moussa, a Tabu commander, his people were supposed to meet the Abu Seif tribe for reconciliation when they came under attack Monday outside a government building.
Officials said they were investigating, but their government was incapable of stopping the violence.
Sabha, once a bastion of support for Gadhafi, was one of the last cities to fall under rebel control last year. It is also the last major city in Libya's far south and lies on a key road leading to the border with Niger.
In Benghazi, about 30 people held a sit-in at the main airport, holding up flights to the capital, Tripoli. The protesters were demanding payments from the government for their role in the uprising, saying that some rebel fighters have received pay while others have not.
Along the country's eastern frontier, frustrated local residents said they were still waiting for the government to send border guards. The residents took control of the border crossing and closed it on Saturday, charging that officials and some tribal members were involved in rampant drugs and weapons smuggling.
The residents allowed people to cross Monday.
In Tripoli, officials held another round of meetings with militiamen who have been securing the country's main international airport since August. The militia's commander and many of his men left their posts Sunday, saying they are being forced to work for free, securing government institutions in the absence of a police force or national army — another sign, they say, of the government's failures.