Libya risks sliding into civil war unless it cracks down on the rival militias that filled the vacuum left by Moammar Gaddafi’s downfall, the head of the interim administration said after an outbreak of violence in the capital.

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the Transitional National Council, issued the stark warning in response to a gun battle between militias in one of Tripoli’s busiest streets Tuesday that killed four fighters.

More than two months after anti-Gaddafi forces captured and killed the former leader, Libya’s new rulers are still struggling to exert their authority as rival militia leaders refuse to cede control of their fighters and hand in their arms.

“We are now between two bitter options,” Abdel Jalil told a gathering in the eastern city of Benghazi late Tuesday. Either “we deal with these violations strictly and put the Libyans in a military confrontation that we don’t accept,” he said, “or we split, and there will be a civil war.”

The militias, drawn from dozens of towns and ideological camps, led the nine-month uprising, backed by NATO airstrikes, to end Gaddafi’s 42-year rule. Now, though, they appear to believe they must keep an armed presence in the capital to ensure they receive their share of political power.

The transitional council has begun to form a fully functioning army and police force to take over the task of providing security, although Abdel Jalil has acknowledged that progress has been too slow.

Tripoli is now an unruly patchwork of fiefdoms, each controlled by a different militia. Police are rarely seen, except when directing traffic, and there is no sign of the newly created national army.

The city has two main homegrown militias. One is led by Abdel Hakim Belhadj, an Islamist who spent time in Taliban camps in Afghanistan and now runs his militia from a luxury Tripoli hotel. The other is headed by Abdullah Naker, a former electronics engineer who is openly disdainful of Belhadj.

There are also the militias from outside town. Fighters from Zintan, an anti-Gaddafi bastion southwest of the capital, control the international airport.

Militias from the city of Misurata, east of Tripoli, have mostly withdrawn from central Tripoli but keep a presence in the eastern outskirts. Fighters from the Berber, or Amazigh, ethnic minority mark out their territory with their blue, green and yellow flags.

Another set of fighters from the east of Libya, the original heartland of the anti-Gaddafi revolt, add to the mix.

— Reuters