Bloomberg News

Libya Islamists Seize Tripoli Airport as Parliament Duel Set

August 24, 2014

Fighters Outside Tripoli International Airport

Islamist fighters in the Fajr Libya, or Libya Dawn, coalition stand guard at the entrance of Tripoli international airport on August 24, 2014. Photographer: Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images

An alliance of Islamist militias said it wrested control of Tripoli’s international airport from a rival force after weeks of fighting that triggered an exodus of foreigners and threatened to plunge Libya deeper into chaos.

Libya’s defunct, Islamist-dominated parliament said it would temporarily resume its sessions, the state-run Libya News Agency reported, a move that may set the stage for dueling legislatures amid a leadership vacuum.

The fighting has battered Libya, undercut efforts to revive oil output in the OPEC member and dimmed hopes for a transition to democracy. It has sparked concern the nation, led by a largely toothless central government, will descend into anarchy and emerge as little more than a failed state controlled by militias.

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The announcement of the airport’s capture by Fajr Libya, or Libya Dawn, came hours after warplanes struck Islamists near and around the airport, killing at least 13 people and wounding 30 others, the independent Al Nabaa television reported. It wasn’t clear who was behind the air strike, the second of its kind in about a week. Libya Dawn blamed Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Both nations denied involvement.

‘Completely Cleansed’

The statement on Libya Dawn’s Facebook page said its “lions” charged the airport and “entered its halls and it’s been completely cleansed of all criminals.” The Islamist group’s spokesman, Mohamed Ghariani, told Al Nabaa that the militia was in control of most locations in Tripoli, including the Interior Ministry near the airport. The claims couldn’t be independently verified and the government hasn’t commented. The group later denied reports by the Arabiya satellite television channel that the airport had been set ablaze.

The month-old battle for Tripoli’s airport pits the Islamist-dominated forces, led by fighters from the coastal city of Misrata, against a militia from the northwestern Zintan region and its allies. The Zintan militants, who have controlled the airport since the 2011 ouster and killing of Muammar Qaddafi, is allied with renegade General Khalifa Haftar, who had been battling Islamists in the eastern city of Benghazi. In all, more than 200 people have been killed and hundreds of others wounded.

Legislative Duel

A new parliament that took over from the interim General National Congress has been meeting in the east, despite boycotts from the Islamists who dominated the old legislature. In a statement issued today, the GNC’s spokesman, Omar Hamidan, said the parliament that was based in Tripoli will not “leave the country to fall prey” to “division, chaos and a political and constitutional vacuum,” LANA reported.

The prospect of rival legislatures only adds to the woes of a country that sits atop Africa’s largest proven reserves of crude oil. Islamists have spun the violence as an attempt by pro-Qaddafi elements and foreign powers -- Egypt and Gulf Arab nations -- to undermine the goals of the 2011 uprising. Their opponents maintain the Islamists are trying to hijack the revolution to realize their own political ambitions.

The political disputes echo on the streets in Tripoli and Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, in clashes between rival militias.

The unrest has hurt Libya’s health care system, created daily power and water cuts, forced embassies to suspend operations and evacuate staff, and left Tripoli’s international airport in shambles.

Worried Neighbors

Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt are boosting security along their borders with Libya, and Cairo is hosting a meeting of Libya’s neighbors tomorrow to discuss the situation.

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, speaking to editors of local media, denied his country was involved militarily in Libya, saying Egypt hasn’t conducted any operations outside its borders “until now.” Egypt’s Foreign Ministry condemned the reported execution of an Egyptian man who was shown in a YouTube video being shot in the eastern Islamist stronghold of Derna after being accused of murder.

The U.A.E.’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, tweeted that an attempt to blame his country for the attacks was “an escape from facing the results of the elections” held in June for the new parliament.

“It will be clear soon that those who target the U.A.E. are the same ones who reject the elections’ results and institution-building,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at teltablawy@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalha@bloomberg.net Amy Teibel, Kevin Costelloe


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