Explosions and gunfire as rival militias battle to control Libya's main airport

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 July, 2014, 4:46pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 July, 2014, 2:42am

Deadly clashes closed down Libya's main international airport yesterday as the anti-Islamist militia that controls it came under attack.

The exchanges of fire with heavy weapons killed at least six people and wounded 25, a health ministry official said. It was not immediately known if civilians were among the casualties.

The assault by Islamist militants on the Zintan militia, which controls Tripoli airport, came after the UN pulled out staff citing security fears and as the US warned of further escalation.

An airport official said "rockets struck inside the airport perimeter around 6am", followed by heavy clashes between the rival gunmen. Explosions and heavy gunfire were heard in the city centre 25km away.

An airport source said Zintan fighters pushed back the assailants, but that clashes continued to rage around the facility, as locals reported seeing tanks deployed and smoke billowing.

Authorities closed the airport for at least three days after initially halting flights.

The former rebel Zintan militia helped topple Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in the 2011 Nato-backed uprising, and is now well established in Tripoli, controlling the airport and military sites.

The heavily armed group, named after a hill town southwest of the capital, is considered the armed wing of the liberal movement jockeying for power with Islamists who dominate parliament.

Yesterday's attack was claimed by the Operations Cell of Libyan Revolutionaries, a coalition of Islamist militias seen as the armed wing of Islamists within the General National Congress (GNC) or parliament.

The fighting comes after a contested June 25 general election to replace the Islamist-dominated GNC, which has been mired in controversy and accused of hogging power.

Libya, awash with weapons since the uprising three years ago, has also been plagued by growing lawlessness.