By Ayman al-Sahli
MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Libya's Interior Minister has warned militias outside the control of the central government to put down their arms or face confrontation with the new national security forces.
The militias spearheaded the rebellion which last year forced out Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Months later, some of them still occupy government buildings and man checkpoints while answering to their own commanders, not the government.
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.
Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) has called on the militias to disband before, and been ignored, but it has been slowly building up a police force and army with the capacity to take on the militias.
At a graduation ceremony for police recruits, Interior Minister Fawzi Abdel A'al said the police now had 25,000 men and was ready to step into the security vacuum that the militias had filled since Gaddafi's overthrow.
"There is a message to those groups who do not join the interior ministry," Abdel A'al said late on Friday in Misrata, about 200 km (130 miles) east of the capital.
"I tell them frankly: there is no excuse for you to carry out security functions inside Libya. You must make yourselves legitimate or these lions (the new police recruits), they will face you."
"There should not be any more militias after this day. They should all stop," the minister said.
"All of those people who still do not have confidence in the Interior Ministry or the government, we tell them our answer will not be through statements or press conferences, our answer will be practical and we start today."
Over the past few months, many of the militias have scaled back their activities, gone back to their home towns or merged themselves into national security services.
In the capital, Tripoli, young militiamen in mismatched camouflage fatigues and with automatic weapons slung around their necks used to be on every street corner. Now they are now rarely seen.
That has left a rump of heavily-armed militias in the capital who have refused to disband. These include a group from the western town of Zintan who control Tripoli International Airport, and the Swehli militia, from Misrata, which is holding two British journalists it accuses of spying.
These groups have become increasingly isolated. They are under pressure from the NTC to leave the city, and also from local leaders in their home cities, who say privately that the militias should fall into line.
In a sign of the pressure, the Zintan militia has promised to hand over the airport to NTC control. An official with the militia told Reuters the plan was to complete the handover by Thursday next week.
"We are under state orders," said the official, Fadel Abu-Sweir. "We have to leave."
(Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib in Tripoli; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Michael Roddy)