TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya: Libyan militiamen fired rockets into two affluent districts of Tripoli early Tuesday, moving a battle between rival armed factions closer to the center of the capital after fighters on one side came under air attack.
Rebel groups who united to topple Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 have since turned their guns on each other, spreading anarchy in oil-producing Libya and raising fears it may become a failed state, destabilizing the wider North and West African region.
An air force controlled by renegade General Khalifa Haftar was responsible for strikes on Islamist-leaning militias in Tripoli Monday, one of his commanders said, after weeks of fighting for control of the capital and its airport.
Later, hours after nightfall, unidentified militiamen fired Grad rockets into the Andalus and Gargaresh districts, among the most well-to-do in Tripoli, killing three people, residents said.
A Health Ministry official had no casualty figures.
The neighborhoods, home to the Libyan bourse, elegant cafes and foreign brand outlets such as Nike or Marks & Spencer, had been buzzing with shoppers until recently.
Shelling also could be heard in other parts of the Mediterranean coastal capital after a morning break Tuesday, residents said.
The air attacks escalated the struggles between Islamists and more moderate militias, as well as between forces from different cities, all vying for power and spoils in the OPEC-member nation.
Tripoli has largely slipped out of the control of the government. Senior officials are working from Tobruk, in the far east of the country, where the new parliament has based itself to escape street fighting in Libya’s two biggest cities Tripoli and Benghazi.
Libya’s central government lacks a functioning national army and relies on militias for public security. But while militias get state salaries, in practice they are loyal to their own commanders and their own towns. Two of the main militias are from the towns of Zintan and Misrata.
The situation in Tripoli has been exacerbated by a separate showdown between Haftar’s forces and Islamist militias in the eastern port city Benghazi.
Explosions shook a Benghazi suburb where Haftar’s forces and Islamists have been fighting since Monday, a Reuters reporter in the area said. Haftar and regular army forces have been trying to wrest back an army camp that was overrun by Islamist militants earlier this month.
Neither the Zintan nor Misrata militia is believed to have warplanes, while the Libyan state’s jet fighters were destroyed or damaged during the 2011 civil war.
Western powers have said they had no role in Monday’s air strikes.
Some Tripoli residents, fed up with daily factional fighting that has disrupted power and food supplies, hope that NATO will intervene again in Libya.