Battle between Libya militias driving residents and diplomats away

Greek warship and Italian military aircraft evacuate hundreds of foreign nationals

 Smoke darkening the sky over Tripoli’s Assaraya Alhamra Museum after rockets fired by one of Libya’s militias struck and ignited a tank in the capital’s main fuel depot, Tripoli, Libya yesterday.  Photograph: EPA/Sabri Elmhedwi

Smoke darkening the sky over Tripoli’s Assaraya Alhamra Museum after rockets fired by one of Libya’s militias struck and ignited a tank in the capital’s main fuel depot, Tripoli, Libya yesterday. Photograph: EPA/Sabri Elmhedwi

Mon, Aug 4, 2014, 01:01

A battle between rival militias for control of Tripoli’s main airport left at least 22 people dead and 72 injured in the Libyan capital at the weekend, driving residents and foreigners out of the country.

Tunisia shut its border at Ras Jedir after chaos erupted on Friday when guards fired shots above the heads of refugees trying to cross.

A Greek warship and an Italian military aircraft took part in a Nato evacuation that has removed hundreds of foreign nationals from the capital. On Saturday Britain became the latest country to close its embassy in Tripoli and relocate staff to Tunisia.

“Reluctantly we’ve decided we have to leave and temporarily suspend embassy operations in Libya,” Michael Aron, the UK ambassador, who remained in Tripoli yesterday to organise the departure of UK nationals, said on Twitter. “We will be back as soon as security allows.”

A western diplomat said there was little indication that the fighting would cease. “We see no signs that either side wants to stop fighting. It’s clear that militias are using civilian houses as cover. They’re going into people’s homes. The shelling is indiscriminate. They fire shells into residential areas and people are being killed by rockets landing on their homes.”

“Every two or three minutes you can hear a bomb or a rocket go off somewhere,” said Hossam al-Fituri, an official at a government social welfare agency attempting to provide shelter for migrant labourers. “Any kind of amenities are very hard to access at the moment, and even grocery stores are empty because trucks haven’t been getting to Tripoli to resupply.”

Libya has struggled to control militia groups that took part in the 2011 Nato-backed armed uprising against Muammar Gadafy. Political leaders appear to have little sway over the groups they have financed.

Despite politicians’ calls for a truce and warnings of prosecutions, hundreds have died and aircraft and infrastructure have been ravaged in the fight for the airport, which lies along the line separating mostly Islamist-controlled eastern Tripoli from the western half dominated by militias from the city of Zintan.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)