22 killed in day of clashes over Libyan airport

August 3, 2014 - 2:04 PM
Greece Libya Evacuation

A woman evacuated from Libya is hugged by a man after arriving at a port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. A Greek navy frigate carrying embassy staff and nearly 200 people from Greece, China and other countries evacuated from the conflict in Libya returned early Saturday to the port. The Greek Defense Ministry the ship transported 77 people from Greece, 78 from China, 10 from Britain, seven from Belgium, one each from Russia and Albania. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A day of militia fighting over control of the international airport in Libya's capital killed 22 people, the country's interim government said Sunday, part of the worsening chaos gripping the country.

Libya is seeing its worst violence since the 2011 civil war that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi, as militias made up of the rebels who overthrew him largely run wild in the country, armed with heavy weaponry that outguns its poorly organized security forces.

Saturday's deaths bring the death toll after weeks of fighting for control of Tripoli's international airport, as well as Libya's second-largest city of Benghazi, to 236 people.

Islamist militias from the coastal city of Misrata have led the assault on the airport, seeking to seize it from militiamen from the mountain town of Zintan. Militia shelling has set fire to at least eight huge oil depots, sending plumes of black smoke over Tripoli, Libya's state-run news agency reported Sunday.

The fighting came as more than three-quarters of Libya's newly elected parliament met for the first time in Tobruk, a city near the Egyptian border chosen for the meeting by a prominent anti-Islamist politician, signaling a swing against Islamist parties and extremist militias.

Days before the lawmakers convened however, Islamist militias overran several army bases and took control of the eastern city of Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 revolt. Their Benghazi advance dealt a major blow to forces loyal to a renegade general who has vowed to drive extremist militias out following months of violence.

On Saturday, 152 lawmakers gathered in Tobruk, according to the official Facebook page of Libya's House of Representatives. Abu Bakr Baiera, the anti-Islamist lawmaker who presided over the session, decided to postpone the official opening of the meeting until more lawmakers arrive.

The presence of that many members of parliament — all elected as independents — suggests most lawmakers are not affiliated to the Islamist factions that dominated Libya's outgoing interim parliament. The last session suffered from political infighting, as well as violent attacks that saw lawmakers kidnapped and parliament itself besieged.

In reflection to the deep divisions among Libya's elected authorities, the government described militias attacking the airport as "assaulting" forces, while the outgoing head of the parliament, Nouri Abu-Sahmein, described them as mandated to "protect the Libyan state and the revolution's gains."

The Islamist-leaning Abu-Sahmein, who enjoys presidential powers and holds the title of the general commander of the armed forces, urged the militias to "protect the revolution, defend it and curb remnants of the security brigades threatening the country and try to takeover power." He described Zintan militias as remnants of Gadhafi's old government. He also has refused to attend the Tobruk meeting and urged lawmakers to convene in Tripoli.

The violence across Libya has prompted the closure of several foreign missions and the withdrawal of diplomats. On Saturday, a Greek naval frigate evacuated embassy staff and nearly 200 people from Greece, China and other countries. Thousands of others have fled to neighboring Tunisia. On Sunday, a British royal navy ship helped about 100 British nationals including embassy staff evacuate.