Tripoli – The bloodiest fighting in Libya since the 2011 revolution has gripped the country as it prepares for political change after parliamentary elections last month.
Islamists, who dominated the former General National Congress, suffered heavy defeats at the ballot box – and while it is unclear who the winners will be in the new House of Representatives, militias are battling for strategic positions.
Militias from Misrata this week continued their bombardment of Tripoli International Airport, which is held by a militia from Zintan, with Grad rockets slamming into a petrol storage facility and surrounding neighbourhoods. The 12-day offensive has claimed 47 lives, while fierce fighting has spilled over into southwestern Tripoli, triggering a mass exodus of thousands of frightened families.
“Shells were falling in my street. I don’t know who was firing them,” said Abu Baker, a resident of the western Saraj suburb.
Revolutionary militias from Misrata, a city 200km east of Tripoli, and Zintan, 150km southwest of the capital, fought side-by-side to topple Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Both surged into the capital three years ago to liberate it, but the Zintan militia ultimately captured the airport.
The fighting has wrecked the asset they both want: 21 planes, representing a large chunk of Libya’s aviation fleet, have been destroyed or damaged, with the transport ministry estimating the bill at 1.9bn dinars ($1.5bn). Buildings are destroyed, the air traffic control centre has been abandoned and Libya’s airspace is closed. Volunteer pilots flew three airliners to safety in Malta, where they are likely to remain indefinitely.
Further east, army units and nationalist militias of former general Khalifa Hiftar, allied with Zintan, have fought with the Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia in battles that have left 23 dead and 79 wounded. Ansar al-Sharia, which Washington blames for the death of US Ambassador Chris Stevens two years ago, has been under attack for the past two months by the forces of Hiftar, who is backed by sections of the army and air force. A further four soldiers recently died in a double suicide bombing at an army base, prompting air force jets and helicopters to pound Islamist brigades.
Amid the ongoing turmoil, the losers are ordinary Libyans. Families have fled war-torn districts in major cities, the economy is in tatters and there have been cuts to water, power and petrol. In Tripoli, Libya’s small army and police forces have failed to intervene, and the government has instead appealed to the international community.
Last week, Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdul Aziz flew to New York to ask the UN Security Council to send military advisors to help secure ports, airports and oil fields. Three years ago, the Security Council passed Resolution 1973, empowering a NATO-led bombing coalition to aid the rebels – but this time around, there is little enthusiasm.
Diplomats in Tripoli say the current fighting is too multi-sided, making it difficult to know where to intervene. Still, Resolution 1973 was based on protecting civilians, who are currently bearing the brunt of many of the rocket strikes.
US Ambassador Deborah Jones, tweeting from the fortified American embassy near the airport where shells have landed outside the walls, called for an international travel ban on those bombarding the airport. American drones and EP3 Orion surveillance aircraft orbit the capital day and night, with residents by the airport reporting that the guns fall silent when they pass over – but there is no sign of outside military action.
Libyan Justice Minister Salah Marghani has asked the International Criminal Court to consider indictments for the airport attackers, arguing that civilians are being hit by the reckless rocket fire. A joint statement from the US, Germany, Italy and the UK called for dialogue, but the main facilitator for that – the UN – has evacuated its 200-strong mission in Libya.
The UN can do very little. It can only intervene and provide a forum for dialogue and problem-solving if the parties are willing to do do that.
“The UN can do very little. It can only intervene and provide a forum for dialogue and problem-solving if the parties are willing to do do that,” Mansour El-Kikhia, a Libyan-American political analyst and writer on international and Middle Eastern affairs, told Al Jazeera.
The most bewildering facet of the current fighting is that all the militias are paid by the government, having been granted status as official security forces by the former General National Congress. But El-Kikhia thinks this is about to change.
“The new House has already made it clear that they will fix much of what the GNC has destroyed,” he said. “First among that is the suspension of payment to militias and withdrawing recognition from them.”
If there is to be military intervention, it may come from Libya’s neighbours. Algeria and Tunisia have deployed 15,000 troops along Libya’s borders, with Algiers hoping to avoid a repeat of the attack launched from Libya that killed more than 50 people at the In Amenas gas complex last year. Egypt, which has deployed troops along Libya’s eastern border, advised its citizens to leave the country after gunmen killed 21 border guards on the weekend. Cairo has vowed unspecified reprisals, saying it will not tolerate “terrorism” from Libya.
In the meantime, ordinary Libyans continue to brace for more violence.
“I went back to my home with my family last night,” Abu Baker said. “What else can I do? We hope only that it will stop.”