Libya burns as militias vie for control

Tripoli residents have fled intense violence, as armed groups agree to a temporary ceasefire in the Libyan capital.

Fire teams said that efforts to put out the oil fire have been hindered by fighting between armed groups [Reuters]

Tripoli, Libya – A thick, black cloud of smoke has rippled across Tripoli’s usually blue summer sky for at least three days, after an estimated six million litres of fuel were set ablaze in the latest battle between rival militias.

The plume and scorching flames have been visible across Libya’s most populated city, as several fuel tanks were hit during clashes on Tuesday, the state-owned National Oil Corporation said in a statement. The burning tanks are located on the road to the airport, a motorway that has been one of the main fronts in the latest round of fighting between rival armed groups.

On Wednesday, the groups agreed to a temporary halt to the fighting. The ceasefire came the same day as Mohammed Sawan, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm in Libya, called the attacks “legitimate”.

Before the ceasefire came into effect, firefighters and workers at the site had been trying to contain the flames, but with clashes continuing and bullets flying nearby, they were forced to move out and watch as the fire continued to devour the fuel. “We have been trying our best to keep the flames under control, but as long as the fighting continues it will be impossible,” Libya’s National Oil Corporation’s spokesman, Mohamed al-Harrari, said.

“We almost had the tanks that were hit under control, but because of the fighting another tank was hit, and the flames spread,” Harrari added.

The Libyan government released a statement requesting international assistance to help fight the fire, which threatens to cause a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe.

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The militias involved in the fighting are from two cities that once stood together against former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Islamist-led forces from Misrata initiated the attacks on July 13 against forces from Zintan, a small but powerful mountain town that pledged allegiance to an anti-Islamist former general, Khalifa Haftar, in May. 

Haftar has been waging a war against several groups, including Islamist ones, in the east of the country without the authorisation of the central government. The former Gaddafi-era officer, who said that he was planning to start military operations in the capital during a press conference in May, commands the loyalty of units from Libya’s army and air force, as well as groups of militia fighters.

Misrata, a city that rose to prominence because of its fierce fighting against Gaddafi, is home to the largest group of fighters in Libya, the Libya Shield.

Misratan gunmen and allied armed groups from Tripoli have used missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, and anti-aircraft machine guns in an attempt to take over the airport, which is controlled by Zintan-based militias since 2011.

Forces from the city, 143km southwest of the capital, are confident they can keep control of the facility and the surrounding area. “We are ready to fight and to stand our ground,” said Othman al-Zintani, a commander in Zintan’s Qaqa brigade. “Most of our forces were in Zintan for Ramadan, now they will return and we can fight back,” he told Al Jazeera. 

Most of our forces were in Zintan for Ramadan, now they will return and we can fight back.

by - Othman al-Zintani, commander in Zintan's Qaqa brigade

More than 90 people have been killed in the clashes to date, and houses, mosques, and clinics have been damaged as a result of the bombardment. Kidnappings have also become a feature of the conflict, with the two sides seizing activists and politicians seen as opposing them.

Mustafa Abushagour, the country’s former deputy prime minister, was kidnapped on Wednesday, but was released the next morning, a source close to him told Al Jazeera.

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The violence has disrupted Libya’s attempts to convene its newly elected house of representatives, which will have its first session on August 4 in the city of Tubruk, near the Egyptian border. The session was originally scheduled to be held in Benghazi, but the location was changed due to security concerns.

“The session will go ahead God willing,” said Saad al-Marimi, a member of the house of representatives, from Tripoli. “Libya is going through a very difficult time,” Marimi said. “It’s not in anyone’s favour for this violence to continue, and we hope it comes to an end soon.”

In Tripoli, neither the Misratans or Zintanis have managed to overpower the other. Residents of the city remain fearful that the instability will persist, as explosions, electricity and communication blackouts, and fuel and gas shortages are making daily life difficult.

Families have fled not knowing when they will return, or what will be left of their neighbourhoods when they do. “It’s difficult for us to live like this, this fighting has to stop,” said Yassen, a student in Tripoli who didn’t give Al Jazeera his full name. “Libya won’t move forward until it does.”

Source: Al Jazeera