Fire rages out of control at Libya's main airport as foreigners told to flee

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 July, 2014, 9:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 1:37am

A huge fire at a fuel depot near Tripoli's international airport is raging "out of control", Libyan authorities announced yesterday as a second fuel storage site caught fire. The government urged residents living within 3km of the scene to "leave their homes immediately".

Fighting for control of the nearby airport forced firefighters to withdraw, abandoning their attempts to extinguish the blaze.

Fire erupted when a rocket struck a tank containing more than six million litres of fuel. The authorities now fear the blaze could spread still further to a natural gas reservoir, where 90 million litres are stored.

Earlier Egypt and several Western states urged their nationals to leave Libya amid spiralling violence after two weeks of fighting.

The Netherlands, the Philippines and Austria prepared to evacuate diplomatic staff. The United States, United Nations and Turkish embassies have already shut operations.

The Tripoli clashes, the most violent since the overthrow of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, started with an assault on the airport by a coalition of groups, mainly Islamists, which has since been backed by fighters from third city Misrata.

The attackers are battling to flush out fellow former rebels from the hill town of Zintan, southwest of Tripoli, who have controlled the airport for the past three years.

The health ministry said on Sunday the violence had killed 97 people. More than 400 people were wounded.

Fighting was still raging yesterday, with explosions heard from early morning as militiamen battled around the airport.

The airport has been closed since July 13 amid the clashes.

Egypt's foreign ministry said a rocket hit a house in Tripoli on Saturday, killing 23 people, including several Egyptians. Cairo called on Egyptians in Tripoli and Benghazi to "immediately leave and save themselves from this chaotic internal fighting".

There were an estimated 1.5 million Egyptians in Libya before Gaddafi's downfall. About two-thirds left during the war but many returned in 2012.

Also on Sunday, a British embassy convoy was fired on in an attempted carjacking in western Tripoli. There were no casualties.

The violence prompted Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands to join Washington in urging their citizens to leave as soon as possible.

Belgium, Malta, Spain and Turkey had previously urged their nationals to leave.

Libya's health ministry warned that foreigners leaving could cause a shortage of health workers, particularly since the Philippines ordered the departure of its citizens, 3,000 of whom are doctors and nurses.