TRIPOLI: Heavy fighting broke out between rival militias vying for control of Libya’s main airport Sunday, killing seven people and forcing a halt of all flights in the worst fighting in the capital for six months.
The assault on the Zintan militia which controls the airport by Islamist militants came after the U.N. pulled staff from Libya citing security reasons, and as the United States warned of further escalation.
An airport official said “rockets struck inside the airport perimeter around 6 a.m.,” followed by heavy clashes between the rival gunmen.
Loud explosions and heavy gunfire were heard in the city center, 25 kilometers away, AFP correspondents reported.
An airport source said Zintan fighters pushed back the assailants from the western city of Misrata but that clashes continued to rage around the facility, as locals reported seeing tanks deploy and smoke billowing. At least 36 people were wounded in the clashes, officials said.
Authorities closed the airport for at least three days from Sunday after initially halting flights.
Zintan forces from the northwest, which have controlled the airport since Gadhafi’s ousting, and Misratis had been put on the state payroll in an unsuccessful attempt by the government to win their cooperation and establish the rule of law.
The heavily armed group, named after a hill town southwest of the capital, is considered the armed wing of the liberal movement jockeying for power with Islamists who dominate parliament.
Sunday’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,” it said on its Facebook page.
Local news channel Al-Nabaa showed men in military vehicles with Misrata insignia opening fire with heavy weapons.
Nabaa TV showed a Libyan Airlines plane and a transport aircraft engulfed in smoke while vehicles fired anti-aircraft volleys and fighters took up positions next to field of sheep.
Britain’s Minister for the Middle East Hugh Robertson in a statement urged an immediate end to the fighting and called on all parties to engage in “meaningful dialogue.”
European Union presidency holder Italy meanwhile called for United Nations-led diplomacy in Libya to aid the democratic transition.
“All too often these crises have been ignored and there has not been adequate support for transitions after regimes are toppled and we are still paying the price,” Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini told the ANSA news agency.
The fighting comes weeks after a contested June 25 general election to replace the Islamist-dominated GNC, which has been mired in controversy and accused of hogging power.
Libya, awash with weapons since the uprising three years ago, has also been plagued by growing lawlessness, while on the political front rival cabinets are jostling for power.
The embattled Tripoli government has been powerless to act and has struggled to establish a strong army and police force, allowing ex-rebels a free hand to act.
Sunday’s clashes came just hours after the United States warned 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,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
July 6, Libya’s electoral commission scrapped the election results from 24 polling stations, citing fraud, and said final results would be announced July 20.
Commentators say liberals will fill most seats in the new parliament, unlike in the former assembly.
But the future makeup of parliament will become clear only after the formation of political blocs, since the vote was open only to “individual candidates” and lists were barred.
The mounting violence prompted the United Nations Support Mission in Libya to announce Thursday that it was pulling out dozens of staff.
The well-armed and disciplined Zintan militia is officially under the jurisdiction of the Defense Ministry, and had claimed a May 18 attack on the GNC to demand its dissolution.
The group has sided with rogue Gen. Khalifa Haftar who has launched a deadly offensive in eastern Libya, cradle of the 2011 uprising, aimed at crushing Islamist militias.