Middle East

Libya violence ramps up as foreigners instructed to flee

Libyan volunteers prepare to leave the Libyan capital Tripoli with goods loaded trucks on July 27, 2014 before a distribution to help the residents of the town of Qasr bin Ghashir, 30 kms south of Tripoli, near the International Airport, where fighting between rival factions continues. AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD TURKIA

BENGHAZI, Libya: At least 36 people were killed in Benghazi, many of them civilian, where Libyan special forces and Islamist militants clashed Saturday night and Sunday morning, as Egypt and western foreign ministries urged their citizens to leave amid spiralling violence.

The government said more than 150 people have died in the capital Tripoli and Benghazi in two weeks of fighting.

In Tripoli, 23 people, all Egyptian workers, were killed when a rocket hit their home Saturday during fighting between rival militias battling over the city’s main airport, the Egyptian state news agency reported.

Since the clashes erupted two weeks ago, 94 people have died in the capital, and more than 400 have been injured as militias exchanged rocket and artillery fire across southern Tripoli, the Health Ministry said.

Another 55 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Benghazi since the clashes have intensified over the last week between regular forces and Islamist militants who are entrenched in the city.

“Most of the victims we have noticed are civilians as the fighters have their own hospitals on the battlefield,” a Benghazi medical source told Reuters.

In the last two weeks, Libya has descended into its deadliest violence since the 2011 war that ousted Moammar Gadhafi, with the central government unable to impose order.

The United States, the United Nations and Turkey have pulled their diplomats out of the North African country.

The United States evacuated its embassy Saturday, driving diplomats across the border into Tunisia under heavy military protection because of Tripoli clashes near the embassy compound.

Three F-16 fighters provided air support and Osprey aircraft carrying Marines flew overhead the U.S. convoy as a precaution, but there were no incidents during the five-hour drive from Tripoli to Tunisia, U.S. officials said.

A British Embassy convoy was hit by gunfire during an attempted hijacking outside the capital Tripoli on the way to the Tunisian border, but no one was injured in the incident, an embassy official said Sunday.

“It was an attempted hijack as the convoy was on its way to the Tunisian border,” the official said. “No one was injured but vehicles were damaged.”

The violence prompted Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam to urge their citizens to leave as soon as possible.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry instructed nationals to leave Tripoli and Benghazi and seek “safer areas in Libya or head to the Libya-Tunisia border.”

Belgium, Malta, Spain and Turkey previously urged their nationals to leave.

Shelling continued Sunday in Tripoli around the airport that is controlled by militias from the western city of Zintan. More Islamist-leaning rival brigades are trying to force them from the airport, which Zintanis have controlled since the fall of Tripoli.

The airport has been closed since July 13 because of the clashes.

Clashes were far heavier in Benghazi overnight, where regular army and air force units have joined with a renegade ex-army general who has launched a self-declared campaign to oust Islamist militants from the city.

A source from the special forces fighting Islamist militants in Benghazi told Reuters clashes involved warplanes hitting militant positions belonging to Ansar al-Shariah and another group in the city.

Libya’s Western allies worry the OPEC country is becoming polarized between the two main factions of competing militia brigades and their political allies, whose battle is shaping the country’s transition.

Special envoys for Libya from the Arab League, the United States and European countries expressed their concerns about the situation in Libya, saying it had reached a “critical stage” and called for an immediate cease-fire.

“The U.N. should play a leading role in reaching a cease-fire in conjunction with the Libyan government and other internal partners, with the full support of the international envoys,” a statement issued after a meeting in Brussels said.

A new Libyan parliament was elected in June and Western governments hope warring parties may be able to reach a political agreement when the lawmakers meet in August for the first session.

But three years after Gadhafi’s demise, Libya’s transition to democracy has been delayed by political infighting and violence. Militias have also targeted the oil industry to pressure the state.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 28, 2014, on page 10.




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