CAIRO – Heavy gunfire between warring militias prevented firefighters from battling a massive inferno in Libya’s capital Tuesday, despite calls for a cease-fire to end the worst violence in the capital since the country’s 2011 civil war.
The blaze engulfing oil depots started earlier in the crossfire of militias fighting over Tripoli’s international airport, a weekslong battle between rivals mirroring the violence that’s plagued Libya since the downfall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. In the eastern city of Benghazi, Islamist-led militias said they also seized bases of a renegade general fighting against them Tuesday as a jet fighter crashed.
The violence has impeded the country’s democratic transition and its escalation is the biggest challenge facing Libya’s newly elected 200-member parliament, which will take office in August.
Earlier this month, a militia composed of fighters from the western city of Misrata backed by others stationed in the capital carried a surprise attack on the airport, held for the last three years by a militia from the mountain town of Zintan.
The fighting forced authorities to shut down the airport after it was devastated in shelling. The Health Ministry said that 97 people have been killed and more than 400 have been wounded in the fighting.
The violence prompted many diplomats and foreigners to flee the country, including the U.S. ambassador in Libya and United Nations staff. A Spanish military plane also evacuated 60 people from Libya, the Spanish Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday. The Spanish ambassador will remain in Tripoli with a reduced staff.
A cease-fire deal over the airport fighting mediated by Tripoli’s City Council fell apart hours after they declared it late Monday, leaving council members pleading with the militias to withdraw from at least a 3-kilometre (1.86 mile) radius to allow firefighters to fight the blaze. The government ordered firefighters to withdraw amid new clashes.
Gunfire struck a fourth oil tank Tuesday, but it didn’t catch on fire, said Samir Kamal, a senior official with Libya’s state-run oil company.
Kamal said up to 80 million litres (21 million gallons) of oil and liquid natural gas are in the area, as well as gas cylinders used for cooking.
“We are afraid that if fire sweeps the whole area … (there will be) huge explosions that can impact lives of residents living in a 5-kilometre (3.11- mile) radius of the tanks,” he said.
The fighting in Tripoli comes as the eastern city of Benghazi has seen monthslong battles between Islamist-led militias and forces allied with renegade Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who has launched a campaign aimed at crushing Islamist extremists.
On Tuesday, Islamist-led militias in the eastern city of Benghazi claimed to have taken control of one of the main barracks of the Special Force, which is allied with Hifter. On its official Facebook page, the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries posted pictures of bulldozers knocking down barracks walls. In a second picture, masked gunmen posed in front of a demolished tower identified as being inside the barracks.
The Special Force was the only force composed of professional troops in Benghazi and has support among many residents for taking the lead in fighting Islamist forces. The Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries also claimed it seized five other Special Force camps, which if true would mean the force had been push out of the city.
Health officials said that at least 38 people were killed earlier this week in fighting between the two sides. Hospital official Habib al-Ubaidi said he expects the death toll to rise dramatically after the attacks on the camps.
Meanwhile, a Libyan fighter jet crashed after Hifter’s forces launched series of nighttime airstrikes hitting positions of Islamist-led militias including those of Ansar al-Shariah. That’s the al-Qaida-inspired group the U.S. blames for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Mohammed Hegazi, a spokesman for Hifter’s so-called National Army, claimed that the fighter jet crashed due to a “technical failure” and that the pilot safely escaped by parachute.
However, the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries claimed responsibility for the “downing” the fighter jet.
Over the past two years, successive governments have relied solely on militias — originated from rebels who fought Gadhafi’s forces — to maintain order after the military and police were shattered during the war. However, militias mushroomed in size and power and quickly turned against elected authorities.
The militias have been blamed in a wave of abductions and killings targeting activists, judges and clerics.
The latest victim appears to be Mustafa Abushagur, Libya’s first elected prime minister after Gadhafi, who a relative said had been kidnapped Tuesday. Abushagur — depicted by opponents as Islamist-leaning — didn’t serve as a prime minister after he was elected by the General National Congress as his Cabinet makeup was rejected by parliament.
Abushagur’s successor, Ali Zidan, also once was kidnapped by militias before he was released by another militia.
Associated Press writers Alan Clendenning in Madrid and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.