BENGHAZI/TRIPOLI: Rival Libyan militias fighting for control of Tripoli’s airport agreed to a temporary cease-fire Wednesday to allow firefighters to try to control a huge blaze at a fuel depot hit by a rocket.
Meanwhile in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, at least 75 bodies, mostly soldiers, were found after two days of fighting in which Islamist fighters and allied militiamen overran an army base.
The past two weeks of fighting have been the worst since the civil war that ousted Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, prompting Western governments to follow the United States and the United Nations in pulling their diplomats out of the North African country.
Two brigades of former rebels, mainly rooted in the towns of Zintan and Misrata, have pounded each other’s positions in Tripoli with Grad rockets, artillery fire and cannon, turning the south of the capital into a battlefield.
But except for sporadic shelling away from the cease-fire zone near the international airport, Wednesday was the quietest day in the capital for two weeks.
“Many mediators have succeeded in convincing the militias to stop fighting, at least temporarily,” government spokesman Ahmad Lamin said. “They are trying to get them to the negotiating table, we hope they will agree.”
France nevertheless closed its embassy Wednesday, and evacuated 30 French nationals from Tripoli, a few days after the U.S. Embassy evacuated its staff across the Tunisian border under heavy military escort. Up to 6,000 people have fled Libya into neighboring Tunisia over the past few days, the Tunisian foreign minister said.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Monji Hamdi said Wednesday that over the last few days between 5,000 and 6,000 people have crossed the border from Libya and that the rate was increasing. He said Tunisia cannot absorb large numbers of refugees and warned his government could close the border.
“Our absolute priority is the security and stability of Tunisia and we will close the border if necessary,” he told reporters in Tunis.
It was unclear if the blaze at the airport depot, which supplies millions of liters of gasoline and gas to the capital, was under control Wednesday, although the volume of smoke had lessened.
A spokesman for the state-run National Oil Corporation, owner of the tanks’ operator, Brega Oil company, said he did not yet have any update on the situation.
Three years after the fall of Gadhafi, Libya’s government is unable to impose its authority on numerous brigades of former fighters who remain heavily armed and often make political demands of the state.
Benghazi was also quieter Wednesday, after fierce battles that led special forces to withdraw from the main army base in the city the previous day.
The Libyan Red Crescent’s Mohammad al-Misrati said it had found more than 50 bodies inside the base. “We are trying to get them out.”
At least 35 of the bodies were later taken to Benghazi’s main hospital, according to a Reuters reporter. Sources in the city’s hospitals said they had received at least 25 bodies from fighting in other places.
The forces of the self-declared Benghazi Shoura Council, which include former rebels and militants from the Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Shariah, seized the base Tuesday after fighting involving rockets and warplanes.
Special forces troops and irregular forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, a renegade ex-army general who had launched a campaign to clear Benghazi of militants, withdrew to an air base outside Benghazi, Haftar’s spokesman said.
Benghazi’s main police station was also abandoned Wednesday morning, according to a Reuters reporter at the scene.
Also Wednesday, unknown gunmen kidnapped and raped a Filipina nurse in Tripoli, medics and security officials said.
The woman was seized early in the morning as she was on her way to work, the Health Ministry spokesman said, and was released several hours later after suffering an unspecified “aggression.” But a source within the security services said she had been raped by her captors.