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Libya airport struck by shell after cease-fire declared to fight wild blaze

The cease-fire agreement, reached late Monday night and mediated by the Tripoli City Council, would mark a rare pause in two weeks of fighting in the capital that's killed nearly 100 people and wounded 400, health officials say.

Mohammed Ben Khalifa/AP
Black smoke billows over the skyline as a fire at the oil depot for the airport rages out of control after being struck in the crossfire of warring militias battling for control of the airfield, in Tripoli, Libya, Monday. The latest violence to plague the country has so far killed scores of people and wounded hundreds as foreigners flee the chaos. Libya's interim government said in a statement that the fire could trigger a 'humanitarian and environmental disaster' in Tripoli, appealing for 'international help' to extinguish the inferno.

A shell fired by warring Libyan militias hit an oil tank Tuesday near the capital's international airport, despite local officials saying they struck a cease-fire to allow firefighters to battle an out-of-control blaze at its oil depot, an official said.

The cease-fire agreement, reached late Monday night and mediated by the Tripoli City Council, would mark a rare pause in two weeks of fighting in the capital that's killed nearly 100 people and wounded 400, health officials say. The battle marks a level of violence unseen there since the downfall of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in the country's 2011 civil war.

However, the shell struck an oil depot tank in Tripoli's Sedi Bu-Salem district, an official with Libya's state-run oil corporation told The Associated Press. The tank didn't catch fire, he said.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to brief journalists.

Another 13 fire trucks arrived Tuesday to battle the blaze at the oil depot, which has a capacity of 6 million liters (1.6 million gallons). The fire spread to a second depot Monday afternoon, the government said.

Libya's interim government has been urging rival groups to stop fighting, warning that the fire could trigger a "humanitarian and environmental disaster" in Tripoli. It appealed for "international help" to extinguish the inferno. It later said that Italy has agreed to send firefighting airplanes, which the Italian Foreign Ministry denied.

As the Associated Press reported Saturday:

American personnel at the Tripoli embassy, which had already been operating with limited staffing, left the capital around dawn and traveled by road to neighboring Tunisia, with U.S. fighter jets and other aircraft providing protection, the State Department said. The withdrawal underscored the Obama administration's concern about the heightened risk to American diplomats abroad, particularly in Libya where memories of the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in the eastern city of Benghazi are still vivid.

Libyan television stations have called on residents to evacuate areas within a 5-kilometer (3-mile) radius of the airport. Many Libyan families scrambled to leave. Black smoke continued to billow Tuesday over the Tripoli skyline.

The clashes sparked earlier this month forced authorities to shut down the airport after it was devastated in shelling between militias controlling it ever since Gadhafi's fall, and others who accuse them of being Gadhafi's loyalists. The armed confrontations prompted many diplomats and foreigners to flee the country, including the U.S. ambassador in Libya and United Nations staff.

On Tuesday, a Spanish military plane evacuated 60 people from Libya, the Spanish Foreign Ministry said in a statement. The Spanish ambassador will remain in Tripoli with a reduced support staff.

"Spain will not close its embassy in Tripoli as a show of support for the Libyan transition, its institutions and solidarity with the Libyan people in these times of crisis," the statement said.

The cease-fire in Tripoli comes as Benghazi in the far east has been enduring months long battles between Islamist-led militias and forces allied with renegade Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who launched a campaign aimed at crushing Islamist extremist militias.

On Tuesday, a Libyan fighter jet crashed after Hifter's forces launched series of nighttime airstrikes, striking positions of Islamist-led militias including those of Ansar al-Shariah. That's the al-Qaida-inspired group the U.S. blames for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Mohammed Hegazi, a spokesman for Gen. Hifter's so-called National Army, claimed that the fighter jet crashed due to a "technical failure" and that the pilot safely escaped by parachute.

However, the official Facebook page of The Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, an umbrella group for Islamist-led militias there, claimed responsibility for the "downing" the fighter jet. It said it came in response to the airstrikes.

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