As UN pulls staff from chaotic Libya, a nascent appeal for foreign peacekeepers

Rival militias are battling for control of Libya's international airport, which is closed after rocket fire destroyed most of the planes on the ground.

Hani Amara/Reuters
A member of the Zintan militias sits in a vehicle at Tripoli International Airport Monday. A rival militia shelled the airport yesterday, destroying 90 percent of planes parked there, a Libyan government spokesman said. The heavy fighting between armed groups prompted the United Nations to pull its staff out of the North African country.

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Heavy fighting between rival militias in Libya has prompted the United Nations to withdraw its staff from the country, and the government to consider calling for foreign peacekeepers to quell the deadly clashes.

Fighting is ongoing in Tripoli, where rival militias have been battling for control of the international airport since Sunday, and in the eastern city of Benghazi, where a renegade army general is trying to crush Islamist militias.

On Monday the Libyan government released a statement saying it was “looking into the possibility of making an appeal for international forces on the ground to re-establish security and help the government impose its authority,” according to Agence France-Presse.

A government spokesman confirmed with reporters Tuesday that it was considering making an appeal, but offered no details.

Also on Monday, the UN Support Mission in Libya announced that it was temporarily withdrawing its full staff, due to deteriorating security. The mission, which had begun reducing its staff over the past week, said employees would return “as soon as security conditions permit.” 

Militias and rebel groups have grown strong in the three years since the NATO-backed uprising that toppled former strongman Muammar Qaddafi, and Tripoli has struggled to control the weapons and rival groups that are moving freely across the country.  

The latest clashes started Sunday in capital city Tripoli, in what in what the Associated Press calls one of the city’s “worst spasms of violence since the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Qaddafi in 2011.” At least seven people have been killed since Sunday, and the airport is closed, halting international flights into the country, Reuters reports.

The Economist explains the situation on the ground in Tripoli:

The latest round of fighting started on July 13th when an alliance of Islamist militias including powerful groups from Misrata, a city 193km (120 miles) east of Tripoli, attacked militias from Zintan, 145km (90 miles) south-west of the capital, which have guarded the airport since capturing it in the revolution. Two days of bombarding each other with rockets, artillery and anti-aircraft cannon fire have followed, so far leaving no clear winner.

Planes now burn on the tarmac, the air control tower is wrecked and staff have abandoned the control centre. Air traffic has been suspended across western Libya. International airlines, only recently coaxed back after rockets struck the runway earlier this year, may not return. 

Government spokesman Ahmed Lamine says 90 percent of the planes at the airport have been destroyed, according to Al Jazeera.

And in the country’s east, at least six people have been killed and 25 wounded in Benghazi since Sunday, where a renegade army general is leading troops in fights against Islamist militias, according to Reuters.

The Economist writes that the situation “is no better 400 miles away at Benghazi’s Benini airport.”

The passenger hall, reopened earlier in July after expensive renovations, was destroyed on July 11th by rocket fire during battles between Islamists militias and the forces of Khalifa Hiftar, a renegade general who since May 16th has been leading his own campaign against Islamist groups in the east of Libya.

Mr Hiftar, who is allied with the Zintan militias guarding Tripoli airport, insists his two-month offensive which has cost more than 200 lives, will cleanse the country of “jihadists”. But his call for a general uprising against Islamists has yet to ignite, in part because many have reservations about the 71-year-old general, who was a trusted member of Qaddafi’s inner circle until he broke with the dictator in the 1980s.

Libya’s neighbors ­– Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Niger, Sudan, and Tunisia ­– called Monday for dialogue and agreed to talks near Tunis that are aimed at preventing spillover violence, AFP reports.

Libya’s neighbors and Western countries fear that turmoil in Libya “will allow arms and militants to flow across its borders,” Reuters reports.

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