Mon, Jul 14, 2014 - Page 1 News List

Libyan militia battle at Tripoli airport amid vote tension

AFP, TRIPOLI

Smoke rises near buildings during fighting between rival militias near Tripoli airport in Libya yesterday.

Photo: Reuters

Heavy fighting raged yesterday around Libya’s main international airport, as Islamist militia groups attacked liberal rivals in their Tripoli bastion in an intensifying power struggle after a controversial election last month.

Exchanges of fire with heavy weapons forced the closure of the airport as foreign ministers from the North African nation’s neighbors were to meet in Tunisia to consider how to aid chaos-riddled Libya.

The assault on the Zintan group by rival Islamist militants also came after the UN pulled its staff from Libya, citing security reasons, and as the US warned of further escalation.

An airport official said “rockets struck inside the airport perimeter around 6am” and were followed by heavy clashes between the Zintan militia, which controls the airport, and rival gunmen.

Loud explosions and heavy gunfire were heard in the city center 25km away, correspondents reported. An airport source said Zintan fighters pushed back the assailants, but that clashes continued to rage around the facility, as witnesses reported seeing tanks deploy and smoke billowing in the area.

Authorities closed the airport for at least three days beginning yesterday after initially halting flights.

The former rebel Zintan militia helped topple former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising and is now well established in Tripoli, controlling the airport and military sites.

The heavily armed group, named after a hill town southwest of the capital, is considered the armed wing of the liberal movement, which is jockeying for power with Islamists, who dominate parliament.

Yesterday’s attack was claimed by the Operations Cell of Libyan Revolutionaries, a coalition of Islamist militias seen as the armed wing of Islamists within the General National Congress or parliament.

“The revolutionary forces arrive within the perimeter of Tripoli airport and clash with armed groups inside,” the group said on Facebook.

Yesterday’s clashes came just hours after the US said that the conflict could become “widespread” unless a new parliament is seated quickly and a new constitution drafted.

“The United States is deeply concerned by the ongoing violence in Libya and dangerous posturing that could lead to widespread conflict there,” US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

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