The evacuation of the US embassy in Tripoli on Saturday followed two weeks of escalating clashes between rival militias in the capital that has left Libya’s government with less diplomatic support as it tries to stabilise the country.
Militias from Misrata, led by Salah Badi, a former commander in the 2011 revolution, have been fighting since July 13 against militias from Zintan for control of Tripoli’s airport and its surrounding districts.
The Misrata city council has claimed that its forces are fighting to capture the airport because Zintan’s militia contained remnants from the old Gaddafi government, something the Zintanis deny in statements and interviews.
Their soldiers at the battered airport produced papers showing their official status as a government security force, tasked and paid to guard the airport.
The Misratan attack has wrecked much of the airport, destroying 21 planes according to the Transport Ministry. The American embassy found itself in the middle of the battle, saying its location is near Airport Road is close to the front line between the factions.
On Friday night, July 25, Washington ordered Ambassador Deborah Jones to leave.
In the early hours of Saturday, a long convoy of armoured jeeps with distinctive scarlet diplomatic license plates left the embassy compound. In the air above, US combat jets circled, and the militias held their fire. It proved to be a brief pause.
With the Americans gone, the battles resumed with renewed intensity.
Germany announced on July 29 it had closed its embassy and Britain, France, and Italy say they have slimmed down embassy staff to essential diplomats, but insist that mediation efforts will continue. A number of European countries have also warned their citizens to evacuate Libya.
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While expats have the opportunity to flee, ordinary Libyans bear the brunt of the clashes.
“Every street around here has been hit,” said Mohammed, a student from Gurji, a southwestern district. “You never know who fires the shell, you just know [when] it hits you [your street].”
A total of 97 people were killed in clashes according to the health ministry, but officials say there are likely to be more because in the midst of chaos the reporting system is incomplete.
Hospital officials said in media interviews that they are running short of drugs after the health ministry said emergency supplies were stolen from a Tripoli warehouse.
On Sunday, the Libyan government said that 23 Egyptian workers were killed by a rocket that hit their house.
Many people have fled from the southwest suburbs where Zintani units are based, fighting a series of artillery duels with Misratans and their allied units.
Western diplomats told Al Jazeera that the fighting is in part the result of the elections on June 25 for the House of Representatives that appear to show steep losses for Islamist candidates, with whom the Misrata militias are allied.
Special envoys from the Arab League, EU, and US, have called for an end to violence and mediation by the United Nations. But the UN said in a statement that it evacuated its 200-strong Tripoli mission earlier this month as fighting raged near its coastal base.
UN resolution 1973, passed in March 2011, allows NATO to intervene with air power to prevent attacks on civilians, but no country has so far expressed the intent to do so.
Last Thursday, in a statement from the International Criminal Court Office of the Prosecutor, the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said she was considering investigating militias bombarding civilians in Tripoli.
Officials and much of the media predict Islamists will not replicate the success they enjoyed in leading the previous parliament, the General National Congress.
“The latest election results confirmed that the Islamists and their supporters got only 23 seats in the 200-seat parliament,” said Dr Mansour el-Kikhia, a political science expert at University of Texas.
“One of the ceasefire demands by the Islamist militia responsible for the attacks on Tripoli airport is the dissolution of the newly elected parliament.”
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But no definitive assessment of the shape of the parliament is possible until the parliament opens in Benghazi on August 4 because all 200 candidates stood as individuals, rather than political parties.
The country’s central government has little sway to bring calm. The interim prime minister, Abdullah al-Thinni, said in a statement that an armed group controlling Tripoli’s second airport, Mitiga, refused to let him board a government plane for a trip to eastern towns.
In this fighting we have lost not only many innocent lives but suffered big material losses. I appeal to my sons and brothers to immediately stop the fighting.
Al-Thinni appealed in a statement issued from Tripoli on July 24 for his countrymen to stop fighting one another. “In this fighting we have lost not only many innocent lives but suffered big material losses,” he said. “I appeal to my sons and brothers to immediately stop the fighting.”
The crisis is also imperilling a deal to end a 12-month long blockade of most oil ports by striking militias. The government says the blockade has cost it $30m in lost revenue and although rebels promised in April to allow production to resume, few tankers have docked at Libyan ports amid fears of violence.
Four shipments were made in recent weeks, but Libya’s National Oil Corporation said production has slowed from 550,000 barrels a day the previous week to 440,000 on July 21 because storage tanks are filling up on the coast.
John Hamilton, director of Cross Border Information, a risk analyst in London, said oil traders were wary of sending tankers into Libyan waters because of the danger, and were demanding steep discounts before they would commit to taking deliveries.
“Tanker operators will want to build-in the risk of going to Libyan ports,” he said.
The fighting also makes it harder to restore oil production at dormant wells. “If the government cannot control the violence – if there is no government – then the basic conditions for the oil sector to work don’t exist,” he said.