The bombardment and closure of Tripoli international airport over the past three days served as yet another confirmation that Libyan militia groups enjoy freedom of action, unencumbered by either law or government forces.
The fresh round of fighting broke out early Sunday morning when a coalition of Islamist militia groups along with another militia group from Misrata, located 193km east of the capital, attacked a rival militia group from Zintan, a small but powerful town in Libya's western mountains located 145km southwest of the capital, over control of Tripoli’s international airport.
Since the 2011 uprising that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, Tripoli international airport has been under the control of the Zintan militia group. Pictures posted on several social media platforms show the Zintan militias trenched inside the airport setting up a makeshift field clinic in the airport lobby.
Many Libyans wonder aloud which neighbouring country would tolerate armed bands launching artillery at their main airport, undisturbed by security forces. "It's incredible," said Mohammed, a waiter at a downtown coffee bar. "These guys (militias) go where they want, do what they want."
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Rockets, anti-aircraft cannon and small arms fire peppered airport buildings and set planes ablaze, with staff and passengers running for cover. One airliner received a direct hit from a grad rocket, a second rocket slamming into the control tower. The air traffic control centre was abandoned by frightened staff, triggering the closure of western Libya's airspace.
The attackers have named their assault Operation Dawn, insisting the Zintani units were occupying the airport illegally.
All three militia groups are officially registered as government forces and paid government salaries, despite taking orders only from their own commanders.
Government police and army units, including thousands of newly trained cadres, stayed away. The government of caretaker Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, condemned the attack, but made no move to stop it, or even cancel the militia's salaries.
A government statement issued early Wednesday called on all military factions to cease their operations and report any field commanders breaching this order to the authorities.
The statement asked forces at Tripoli airport to withdraw from their positions to a distance of 20km, although it did not say how it would enforce this. According to official reports, 90 percent of the planes, which had remained at Tripoli airport, have been damaged.
The effects of the attack are profound. International airlines had recently returned after being scared away by a rocket strike on the runway last March, and have now suspended services indefinitely. Meanwhile 6,000 Libyans are stranded at airports across Europe and the Middle East trying to get back home.
Libyan Airlines launched a desperate plea through Facebook for volunteer pilots to cross the front-line and fly its remaining planes to safer airports, but there were no takers.
A second airline, Afriqiyah, having only recently been allowed to fly to European Union destinations, has seen two Airbus airliners, worth half a billion dollars, destroyed on the tarmac.
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The airport battle is part of a wider conflict raging for the past two months between Islamists and the forces of former general Khalifa Haftar in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Haftar, backed by sections of the army and air force, launched his offensive, Operation Dignity, on May 16 against Islamist brigades in Benghazi, accusing them of harbouring jihadists.
The fighting has cost more than 200 lives and seen regular air strikes pound Islamist bases. Zintani militias are aligned with Haftar, and on May 18, they stormed the former Islamist-led General National Congress in Tripoli.
Benghazi’s own international airport was wrecked by rocket fire from this round of fighting earlier this month and Misrata, the country’s third international airport, has flights grounded by the ban on operations in western Libya, an ironic twist as their militias provided artillery for the Tripoli bombardment.
Look at this. We fought the revolution for democracy and we ended up with chaos.
The conflict is now widening. Militias in western Tripoli’s Janzour district blocked roads into the city in support of the Dawn operation, while tribal militias of Tebu, in southwest Libya, and Washafani, west of Tripoli have mobilised to support Operation Dignity.
Tripoli itself is a honeycomb of roadblocks as local militias try to protect their neighbourhoods. Standing by a burning barricade blocking the main highway in western Tripoli, a student, Hassan, said: "Look at this. We fought the revolution for democracy and we ended up with chaos."
The United Nations and US Secretary of State John Kerry have called for mediation, but foreign officials are leaving. The UN evacuated all 200 staff from its coastal compound and foreign embassies are closing or scaling back.
The fighting threatens to undercut the election on June 25 of a new parliament, the House of Representatives, which is due to open on August 1 in Benghazi.
Security will be the number one priority for lawmakers as they try to prevent the disintegration of Libya. The economy is collapsing, there are power cuts, petrol lines and a militia oil blockade which has cost the country $30bn, added to which Libya is now cut off from air travel. "We Libyans have imposed our own no-fly zone," says one popular tweet circulating on Twitter.
But the House of Representatives will lack reliable security forces to confront the militias. Its one remaining power will be to cut militia pay cheques. But lawmakers will be aware that when the previous Congress tried such measures, it was stormed by those same militias.