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Libya truce shattered by fresh fighting

The inside of a damaged terminal is seen after a shelling at Tripoli International Airport July 17, 2014. REUTERS/Hani Amara

TRIPOLI: Fighting between powerful militias battling for control of Tripoli’s airport broke out again Friday, just hours after they had agreed a truce, an airport official and witnesses said.

The clashes came a day after the government sought the United Nations’ help to prevent the country from becoming a “failed state.”

“The airport was once again today hit by mortar fire which struck the security offices,” but caused no casualties, airport security official al-Jilani al-Dahech told AFP. Airport security forces returned fire, he said without giving further details.

Libya’s main international airport has been closed since Sunday, with rockets causing damage to aircraft and the main terminal building amid warnings by officials that the facility could remain closed for months.

The violence erupted when Islamist gunmen from the city of Misrata attacked anti-Islamist fighters from the city of Zintan who have been controlling the airport for the past three years.

The rival fighters are among several heavily armed militia groups who have held sway over Libya since they fought in the NATO-backed 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Friday’s clashes broke out just hours after the mayor of Tripoli announced that the rival militias had agreed to observe a truce and that control of the airport would be handed over to neutral forces.

Gunfire and blasts were also heard in Abu Slim neighborhood, just south of the airport, an AFP correspondent said, while residents said the battles pitched rival militias against each other.

The renewed violence also came hours after Foreign Minister Mohammad Abdel-Aziz asked the United Nations for help to build up Libya’s army and police to protect vital sites such as the airport.

Relentless violence across Libya in recent months has sparked fears of all-out civil war and Abdel-Aziz told the Security Council that his country could become a “hub for attracting extremists.”

The fighting also mirrors a deadly power struggle between liberals and Islamists in the country.

Mokhtar Lakhdar, a commander for the Zintan forces, told AFP that a truce had been agreed under the city’s government council.

Ahmad Hadeia, a spokesman for Misrata fighters, said the cease-fire was “only around the airport” and did not include other sites controlled by Zintan forces.

Misrata leaders said Thursday that the fighting at the airport was a “battle of revolutionaries ... against followers of the old regime” of Gadhafi.

The clashes revived fears of the conflict spreading inside Tripoli itself, with official results still awaited from a June 25 election to the parliament previously dominated by Islamists.

“Should Libya become a failed state, kidnapped by radical groups and warlords, the consequences would be far-reaching and perhaps beyond control,” Abdel-Aziz told the U.N. Security Council.

Libya could become a “hub for attracting extremists,” feeding radicalism and the arms flow in the region and further afield in Syria, he said.

“We are not asking for military intervention,” he said. “We are asking for a team from the U.N. specialized in the field of security.”

In a statement, the 15-member Security Council said that it condemned the recent violence in Libya and said it made “it even more difficult for the Libyan authorities to govern effectively.”

The Council would ask U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to examine the Libyan request for aid and present “options,” said Eugene-Richard Gasana, the Rwandan chair of the U.N. body.

Last week, the United Nations evacuated its staff from Libya after the latest upsurge in fighting.

Abdel-Aziz said a new United Nations mission to help train the security forces would ensure Tripoli keeps control of vital oil revenue after militant groups seized oil terminals last year.

The blockades of the oil facilities, which finally came to an end this month, deprived Libya of more than $30 billion in revenue over 11 months, the foreign minister said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 19, 2014, on page 9.

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Summary

Fighting between powerful militias battling for control of Tripoli's airport broke out again Friday, just hours after they had agreed a truce, an airport official and witnesses said.

The rival fighters are among several heavily armed militia groups who have held sway over Libya since they fought in the NATO-backed 2011 uprising that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Friday's clashes broke out just hours after the mayor of Tripoli announced that the rival militias had agreed to observe a truce and that control of the airport would be handed over to neutral forces.

The renewed violence also came hours after Foreign Minister Mohammad Abdel-Aziz asked the United Nations for help to build up Libya's army and police to protect vital sites such as the airport.

Last week, the United Nations evacuated its staff from Libya after the latest upsurge in fighting.


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