Libyan militias say they have taken Tripoli airport

ِAn Islamist militia coalition claimed control of Tripoli international airport after 10 day of clashes

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Forces from the Libyan city of Misrata on Saturday seized Tripoli’s main airport after more than a month of fighting with a rival group, Reuters reported a Misrata spokesman as saying.

Pictures on social media purportedly showed Misrata fighters celebrating at the terminal building and standing on civilian planes in what, if confirmed, would be a big development in the battle to control the capital.

“Fajr Libya announces that it totally controls Tripoli international airport,” a statement shown on screen on An-Nabaa television, regarded as close to the Islamists, quoted the fighters in the Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) coalition as saying.

The strategic site 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of the Libyan capital, has been shut since July 13 amid skirmishes between the Islamists and nationalist fighters from Zintan west of Tripoli, who had held the airport since the 2011 fall of long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

However, Libyan army sources told Al Arabiya News Channel that the army “tactically” withdrew from the area of Tripoli’s airport, emphasizing that the battle is not over.

The sources also denounced the Islamist militia coalition calling on the parliament to surrender power.

Islamists said Libya’s outgoing provisional General National Congress (GNC) has lost confidence in the new parliament, holed up in the eastern city of Tobruk because of the violence in the capital Tripoli.

But GNC is to resume operations despite being superseded by an elected national parliament, its spokesman said on Saturday.

“The General National Congress will hold an emergency meeting in Tripoli to save the country’s sovereignty,” spokesman Omar Ahmidan said on a local television station.

Meanwhile, Libyan Defense Minister Khaled al-Sharif was also sacked after reports indicated his involvement with arming militant groups.

Two airstrikes targeting the Islamist militia positions in Tripoli killed 15 fighters and wounded 30, the Associated Press reported a senior Islamist militia leader and a militia spokesman as saying.

The militia leader said the warplanes targeted the Interior Ministry and several militia positions, setting fire to a warehouse. He said two sons of the head of the military council of Misrata militias, Ibrahim Bin Rajab, were among the wounded. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists.

Mohammed al-Gharyani, the militia spokesman, said more than 30 fighters were wounded in the airstrikes but that the militia had not abandoned its positions, including the Interior Ministry, the army headquarters and the military police headquarters.

Al-Gharyani said militia fighters from other areas and towns were joining the Misrata forces and “our response will be severe.”

The air force of Libya's renegade general Khalifa Haftar on Saturday attacked positions of the militias in Tripoli for the second time in less than a week, Reuters reported one of his commanders as saying.

The faction under attack, Operation Dawn mainly from the town of Misrata, said the raids had killed 10 people and wounded dozens.

Haftar launched a campaign against Islamists in the eastern city of Benghazi in May. He threw his weight behind fighters from the western region of Zintan who are battling militia from the town of Misrata, east of Tripoli.

In the 2011 NATO-backed campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi fighters from Zintan and Misrata were comrades-in-arms but they later fell out and this year they have turned parts of Tripoli into a battlefield.

Residents heard loud explosions early in the morning near the main airport where the two groups have been fighting for control for more than a month, in the worst fighting since the overthrow of Qaddafi.

Gharyani also said buildings of state oil firm al-Waha near the airport road were hit and the chief of staff headquarters under control of his forces.

Haftar’s air defense commander, Sager al-Jouroushi, told Reuters that the general’s forces were responsible for the attack. Haftar’s forces also claimed responsibility for air raids on Operation Dawn positions in Tripoli on Monday.

Fresh fighting also erupted between Haftar’s troops and allied army special forces with Islamists in two Benghazi suburbs, where loud explosions could be heard. Four soldiers were killed and 31 wounded, a hospital medic said.

Western countries and Egypt, worried about Libya becoming a failed state and safe haven for Islamist militants, have denied any involvement. The Libyan government has said it does not know who is responsible for the air attacks.

The North African oil producer has been in chaos as the weak government is unable to control former rebel factions which helped topple Gaddafi.

Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani called on Egypt and Tunisia to open its airspace again for flights to western Libya. Both countries had cancelled most flights to Libya for security reasons after the air strikes, cutting off a vital link to the outside for Libyans and foreigners fleeing fighting.

“This has a negative impact on movements of Libyan citizens and puts an additional burden on all people,” Libya’s embassy in Cairo said in an statement.

Libya has used the small Matiga airport in Tripoli for civilian traffic since the main airport was turned into a battlefield last month. The tower, runway and at least 20 aircraft have been damaged, officials have said.

When flying into Matiga, passengers can sometimes see smoke rising from battles in and around the main airport.

The violence has prompted the United Nations and foreign embassies in Libya to evacuate their staff and citizens, and foreign airlines largely stopped flying to Libya.

Tripoli has largely slipped out of control of the government, with senior officials working from Tobruk in the far east, where the new parliament has based itself to escape the violence in Tripoli and Benghazi.

Libya’s central government lacks a functioning national army and relies on militia for public security. But while these get state salaries and wear uniforms, they report in practice to their own commanders and towns.

(With AFP, Associated Press and Reuters)

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