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Libyan militia tighten control of Tripoli airport

16 July 2014, 09:32

Tripoli - Libyan militia fighters with anti aircraft guns and mortars fanned out on Tuesday across Tripoli's airport, transformed into a battlefield by two days of fighting that has cut the Libyan capital off from the outside world.

Widespread violence has brought the north African country to the edge of chaos three years after the uprising that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

At least 15 people have been killed in the capital and the eastern city of Benghazi since Sunday. Fighting between rival militias at the capital's airport damaged the control tower and wrecked 11 civilian aircraft parked on the tarmac. The main terminal building has been turned into a field hospital.

In Benghazi, irregular forces loyal to renegade former general Khalifa Haftar, a former Gaddafi ally, bombarded Islamist militia bases as part of his self-declared campaign to oust militants. Special forces clashed with militia fighters in the city.

The Tripoli airport battle has prompted the United Nations to evacuate its staff from the country, where a new government is struggling to impose order over streets prowled by fighters who rose up against Gaddafi and never disarmed.

The airport area is under the control of former fighters from the western town of Zintan who have held it since the fall of Tripoli in 2011. Rival Islamist-leaning militias fought with the Zintanis in recent days, but failed to dislodge them.

For the past three years, the new authorities have tried to rein in militia fighters by putting them on the government payroll. But months of protests at oil fields and ports caused government revenues to collapse last year, leaving the economy in tatters.

Nato helped rebels topple Gaddafi with air strikes, but the Western military alliance has not intervened to stem the subsequent chaos. Kerry said the United States, whose ambassador was killed in an attack in Benghazi in 2012, had sent diplomats to seek consensus among Libyan political groups.

Government spokesperson Ahmed Lamine said Tripoli was studying the possibility of international forces to improve security. But it is not clear whether there has been any real Libyan proposal, much less international willingness to send troops.

Western powers fear chaos in Libya will allow arms and militants to flow across its borders. The south of the vast desert country has become a haven for Islamist militants kicked out of Mali by French forces earlier this year.

In one bit of good news for the government, the authorities have managed to end a port blockade by a brigade of militiamen who had taken control of four main oil terminals to demand more autonomy for their eastern region. That protest and others at oilfields slashed the Opec country's production.

Despite the latest violence, Libya's oil production has risen to 588 000 barrels per day (bpd), the country's acting oil minister told Reuters on Tuesday, an improvement from last year, but still only about a third of pre-war levels.

- Reuters


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