TRIPOLI: Regular and constant thuds from rival militias’ battles near Tripoli International Airport set the rhythm of daily life for the Libyan capital’s residents, busy coping with power cuts and petrol shortages.
The only visible sign of the fighting is a column of black smoke that has been rising from a fuel depot south of Tripoli ever since shooting set it alight at the end of July.
The battlefield is inaccessible to independent media, the number of casualties is impossible to verify and the outcome uncertain.
Fighters from Misrata, east of Tripoli, and their Islamist allies claim to be making progress toward the airport, 30 kilometers south of the city, after seizing a strategic bridge and an old Libyan army base.
Their opponents, nationalist militiamen from Zintan in western Libya, say that they still hold the airport, closed since July 13, and have kept open their supply lines to the west of the capital.
The direct collateral victims of the fighting are people living in Tripoli’s southern neighborhoods, who have fled in large numbers.
A thousand families have sought refuge in Tarhuna and 700 more in Bani Walid, officials in the two towns southeast of Tripoli say.
For other people in the capital, the clashes just add to the difficulty of getting through each day.
“Power cuts last nine hours a day and we are never warned about them,” complains 60-year-old Ali Tajuri, a resident of eastern Tripoli.
“The cuts weren’t so bad during the revolt against Moammar Gadhafi,” he said.
The power outages have disrupted life in the capital, where many shops are shut, civil servants have abandoned their posts and public services are practically at a standstill.
The national electricity company warned Monday of a “risk of a general power cut unless network maintenance is carried out in the east of the country.”
The petrol shortages are also causing problems, and creating tension.
“Four hours of waiting then he nips in front of me,” moans a driver outside a petrol station in the heart of the capital, referring to another driver who has, supposedly, queue-jumped.
The two young men quickly come to blows and police who are monitoring the petrol station struggle to separate them.
Everyone in the petrol-station queue criticizes the government, which is powerless amid the chaos and has decamped with parliament to Tobruk, 1,600 kilometers east of Tripoli, for security reasons.
Millions of liters of petrol went up in smoke when the southern Tripoli fuel depot caught fire, and the distribution company has been supplying Tripoli from small tankers docked at the port.
But it is clearly not enough. Many Tripoli petrol stations are shut down and the rest open only when a fresh delivery arrives.
The scarcity of petrol is affecting prices generally. At Tripoli’s fish market, customers are bargaining more than usual and buying less, stallholders say.
The situation is similar at the Bab Tajura Market, which sells seasonal fruits and vegetables.
However, the capital’s residents are carrying on with their lives and still throng the waterfront cafes and roundabouts in the evening.
Nor have all foreign workers fled. Gad, an Egyptian who runs a laundry, reckons he is “safer staying here than taking the road to Egypt.”