AFRICANGLOBE – Officially Libya is not at war, but for the thousands of residents of the capital, Tripoli, who fled their homes at the weekend it is starting to feel like it. Fighting spilled across Tripoli’s western districts after a battle between rival militias on July 19th and 20th for control of Libya’s main airport left 47 dead, marking it as the most violent day since the end of the 2011 CIA-Pentagon-NATO coordinated counter-revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
Militias from Misrata, some of the most racist and brutal since 2011, frustrated at their failure to capture the airport after a week of fighting with the Zintan militia that holds it, arrived with tanks to pound the perimeter. The Zintanis responded with shells and anti-aircraft fire. As the violence expanded, huge fires burned in the city’s western districts. “A shell hit my neighbour’s house and a lot of people left,” says Seraj, a resident of the western suburb of Janzour. “We stayed inside, it was not safe on the streets.”
When the smoke cleared, Zintanis remained in control of the airport, but it is now a shambles of wrecked buildings and burned-out aircraft. The transport ministry says 21 planes, valued at 1.9 billion dinar ($1.5 billion) have been damaged or destroyed. Brave Libyan pilots have flown two Airbuses belonging to Afriqiyah (a state-owned Libyan airline) and a third jet from Libyan Airlines, the flag carrier, to safety in nearby Malta.
Without command of any troops willing and able to intervene, Libya’s foreign minister, Muhammad Abdul Aziz, on July 17th asked the UN Security Council to send military advisers to bolster state forces guarding ports, airports and other strategic locations. He warned that Libya risks going “out of control” without such help. But he found no takers. The Security Council, which passed resolution 1973 authorising the Pentagon-NATO blanket bombing of Libya in March 2011, worries about committing troops to a war featuring a mosaic of competing factions. “Whose side are we supposed to intervene on?” asks a Western diplomat in Tripoli.
With airspace closed to most flights, foreigners continue to leave the country through the only available exit, the land border with Tunisia. Turkey and the Philippines have followed the UN in evacuating their staff, joined at the weekend by oil company workers from Italy’s ENI and Spain’s Repsol. America has an aircraft carrier stationed offshore in case it decides to evacuate its diplomats from the fortified embassy in Tripoli, where staff took to shelters on July 20th as shells fell around the walls. Almost all foreigners have already fled Benghazi, Libya’s second city, in the country’s east, where helicopter gunships allied with a renegade general, Khaled Haftar, a long time CIA operative, pounded Islamist militias over the weekend.
Libya’s neighbours are rattled. Algeria and Tunisia this month deployed 15,000 troops to their borders with Libya. Egypt closed its border crossing on July 19th and warned of retaliation when a day later 21 border guards were killed by gunmen near the Libya frontier. Diplomats hope, perhaps in vain, that the chaos will end when the new parliament convenes in Benghazi early next month.
Until then, Libyans are resigned to more turmoil. The reluctance of some ships to enter Tripoli docks has meant a shortage of fireworks, which traditionally light up the sky at the end of Ramadan, due next week. “We have fireworks in the night, but those are fireworks we wish not to see,” says Seraj.
Tripoli’s International Airport Destroyed By Fighting