Heavy fighting between rival militias vying for control of Libya’s main airport in Tripoli has left at least seven people dead and halted all flights.
Explosions and anti-aircraft gunfire were heard from early Sunday morning on the airport road and other parts of the capital until the situation seemed to calm down in the late afternoon.
The fighting was the worst in Tripoli since more than 40 people were killed in clashes between militias and armed residents in November.
Besides the seven fatalities, another 36 people were wounded in the clashes, the Libyan Health Ministry said.
Residents said that militia members from the northwestern region of Zintan who had controlled the airport came under fire, and local TV footage suggested that the attacking rebels were from the western city of Misrata.
The United Nations has said it has temporarily relocated some of its international staff out of Libya after heavy fighting broke out between rival militias vying for control of Libya’s main airport.
“We can confirm a temporary relocation for security reasons,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said.
Zintan versus Misrata
Zintan forces, which have controlled the airport since Gaddafi’s overthrow, and Misratis had been put on the state payroll in an unsuccessful attempt by the government to secure their cooperation and try to bolster the rule of law.
Comments on pro-Misrata websites suggested that the force was freeing the airport from Zintani control to hand it over to authorities.
The central government denounced the attackers as illegal.
“The operation is led by civil leaders belonging to brigades and troops … moving without orders and legal cover,” the government of Prime Minister Abdulllah al-Thinni said in a statement.
Local news channel Al Nabaa showed men in military vehicles with Misrata insignia opening fire with heavy weapons.
Heavy smoke could be seen rising above the airport as an official said: “All domestic and international flights have been halted.”
Al Nabaa TV showed a Libyan Airlines jet and a transport aircraft engulfed in smoke while vehicles fired anti-aircraft volleys and fighters took up positions next to a field of sheep.
Social media websites said that several rockets had hit the airport perimeter.
Photographs on Facebook showed thick smoke at what was said to be the parking lot in front of the terminal. Families were trapped inside the building, local websites said.
The violence comes as the country awaits the results of the June 25 parliamentary elections.
Earlier the US warned that the conflict in Libya could be “widespread” following an acknowledgement by electoral officials that fraud had clouded the poll.
“The United States is deeply concerned by the ongoing violence in Libya and dangerous posturing that could lead to widespread conflict there,” Jen Psaki, of the US state department, said on Saturday.
Officials and Libya’s partners had hoped the vote would give a push to state building and ease political tensions.
Tripoli has seen a surge in kidnappings but has been mostly spared the kind of violence that has rocked the eastern city of Benghazi, where clashes between self-styled Islamist groups and forces loyal to a renegade general occur almost daily.
On Thursday, the UN Support Mission in Libya announced it was pulling out dozens of staff because of security concerns.
Libya, an OPEC member, is divided between rival militias from urban communities and tribes, as well as Islamist and more moderate forces.
Oil production has fallen to a fraction of the 1.4 million barrels a day that Libya produced before July 2013 when a wave of protests erupted at oilfields and ports.
The loss of oil revenues has caused a budget crisis as Libya depends on energy exports.