Tripoli airport becomes Libya's new frontline between rival militias

TRIPOLI, July 15 Tue Jul 15, 2014 6:40pm EDT

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TRIPOLI, July 15 (Reuters) - First, there is a single shot. Then Libyan fighters empty their anti-aircraft guns as others crouch for cover at Tripoli International Airport.

Until Saturday night, the airport was a hub for Libyans coming home for the Muslim fasting month and expatriates going on vacation. Now, Libya's main airport has turned into a battlefield between rival militias, a sign of anarchy in the oil producer.

The weak government with its almost non-existent army is appealing for calm but fighters on both sides show no signs of abating in the worst militia clashes in the capital Tripoli since November.

Militiamen from the northwestern region of Zintan are ready to defend the airport that they have protected in the absence of state forces since helping to take Tripoli in August 2011 when Muammar Gaddafi's regime fell.

"The other side has unfortunately decided to use the language of gun," said Mohammed Ramadan, head of the town council of Zintan, which makes up the bulk of fighters.

The other side, accused by the government of attacking the airport area on Sunday, is made up of militias mainly from the coastal city of Misrata, rivals of the Zintanis. Divisions along regional and tribal lines still split the North African country.

The rival militias both claim to work for the sake of stability and accuse each other of abandoning the ideals of the revolution ending Gaddafi's dictatorship.

During the NATO-backed uprising, both set aside their differences but now they are vying for control of Tripoli. The airport 30 km (19 miles) to the south of the capital is the biggest trophy.

Tank ammunition is stapled in rows next to pickup trucks with mounted machine guns or mortars, while a Russian-made tank drives around the terminal with its turret swinging around.

With shooting even continuing during Ramadan fast-breaking at sunset, fighters take turns resting inside the air-conditioned terminal. They sit on chairs and luggage trolleys next to check-in counters, while fellow men fire their guns at the frontline, around one kilometer at the airport's other end.

DAMAGES

The government has said 90 percent of the airport and planes parked there have been damaged but an assessment is impossible as long as bullets fly around. One hit a flag pole next to the terminal while a Reuters multimedia team was filming. The transport minister had to abandon a tour late on Monday after the airport perimeter got shelled with Grad rockets.

A Reuters reporter saw around six damaged planes - left by Libyan carriers in front of the terminal late on Saturday. One aircraft is totally burned out. Others show huge holes in the wings or body from anti-aircraft volleys. The control tower also took a hit but the lift still works.

Busses parked on the runway were also untouched but shrouded in smoke from burning grass near the runway where rockets landed.

"Some equipment at the control tower will have to be replaced and imported from abroad," said Ramadan, sitting on a bench behind the sales counters of European airlines Lufthansa and Alitalia. Other fighters sit on chairs next to a cafe and a luggage shop with its goods untouched.

"The runway took hits from rockets. A maintenance firm will have to fix repair it," he said. A soldier said: "The terminal is unharmed but the custom control hall got hit."

Outside fighters - wearing army uniforms or jeans and white shirts - relax in front of the terminal while others shout "Allah Akbar" (God is great) when anti-aircraft guns roar nearby.

For the night, mattresses are laid out next to boxes full of ammunition and dates for fast-breaking. "There is no chance," said Ramadan, when asked about success chances by government mediators to halt fighting. "The other side has rejected it." (Reporting by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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