TRIPOLI: Clashes with artillery and rockets spread yesterday into two Tripoli districts, where rival militia brigades were battling over the airport in Libya’s worst fighting since the 2011 revolt that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
Nearly 200 people have been killed since the violence erupted two weeks ago in Tripoli and also in the eastern city of Benghazi, where a coalition of Islamist militants and former rebels has overrun a major army base in the city.
Three years after the fall of Gaddafi, Libya’s fragile government and nascent army have failed to impose authority on heavily armed brigades of former rebels who have become the North African country’s powerbrokers.
Fighting over two weeks has driven most Western diplomats out of the Libyan capital, increasing international worries that the OPEC oil producer is sliding toward becoming a failed state just across the Mediterranean from mainland Europe.
Thuds of artillery, rockets and anti-aircraft cannons echoed across Tripoli from early yesterday morning, a day after a temporary ceasefire agreed by factions to allow firefighters to put out a huge blaze at a fuel depot hit by a rocket.
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the new exchanges. But the health ministry said yesterday hospitals had reported 179 people killed and more than 700 wounded in fighting in the two cities since the start of violence.
Most of the fighting had been restricted to southern Tripoli where warring factions have exchanged barrages between the airport controlled by Zintan brigade fighters and enclaves allied to their Misrata brigade rivals.
Clashes with Grad rockets also broke out in the district of Seraj, Janzour, 17 km west of the capital, a Reuters reporter said. Local Janzour brigades have usually been aligned against Zintan in the past standoffs.
Firefighters were still working yesterday on dousing a massive fire ignited at the fuel depot near Tripoli airport three days ago, the state-run National Oil Corporation said, without giving details of how well the blaze was under control. Western governments hope the warring factions can reach some political agreement within the newly elected parliament that is due to hold its first session tomorrow in Tobruk, two parliamentary sources said.
Once allies in the NATO-backed war against Gaddafi, the Misrata and Zintan brigades have feuded in the past over control of parts of Tripoli since the fall of the capital. But the recent fighting is the worst in three years.
Zintanis, from the western town of Zintan, have controlled the international airport since Tripoli fell. Fighting has damaged the terminal and a control centre and has burned commercial jets parked on the tarmac.
Clashes have also complicated the situation in Benghazi, after an alliance of Islamist militants and former rebels overran a special forces base in the city, forcing the army into a retreat, local residents and army officials said.
Residents said there was little sign of army or police presence on the ground in Benghazi yesterday, two days after Islamist fighters from Ansar Al Sharia and the coalition of former rebels, Benghazi Shura Council, overtook the base.
The militant victory was an advance for Ansar Al Sharia, classified as a terrorist organisation by Washington. Ansar has been blamed by authorities for an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012 in which the US ambassador was killed.
Special forces have now joined up with air force units to back renegade former army General Khalifa Haftar, a former Gaddafi ally who once lived in exile in the United States and returned to fight with the rebels in the 2011 uprising.