| TRIPOLI, July 25
TRIPOLI, July 25 Black plumes of smoke marked
shell blasts and bulldozed earthen barricades mapped out the
frontlines around Tripoli's largest airport, now at the heart of
a standoff between the country's powerful militias.
With barrages of Grad rockets, anti-aircraft guns and
artillery fired at their rival enclaves just kilometers apart,
brigades of former rebels have turned parts of southern Tripoli
in a battleground for nearly a fortnight.
The clash over Tripoli International Airport is the latest
eruption in a deepening rivalry among bands of ex-fighters who
once battled side by side against Muammar Gaddafi, but have
since turned against each other in the scramble for control.
Since the 2011 fall of Tripoli, fighters from the western
town of Zintan and allies have controlled the area including the
international airport, while rivals loyal to the port city of
Misrata had entrenched themselves in other parts of the capital.
Heavily armed, they have refused to hand over their guns and
sided with competing political forces trying to shape the future
of Libya in the messy transition since Gaddafi's four-decade
rule over the North African state.
Libya's government on Friday urged the two broad factions to
sit down for talks, and negotiators were trying to broker a
ceasefire between the groups which have become de facto
powerbrokers in post-Gaddafi Libya.
"We call the people of Zintan and Misrata to urgent talks
with the government to resolve this crisis and work out an
initiative to settle this at once," Prime Minister Abdullah
al-Thinni's office said.
Deep divisions, however, were clear along Tripoli's empty
airport road, where burning grasslands smoked from recent
shelling. Sporadic artillery and anti-aircraft fire could be
heard booming out from the airport toward southern Tripoli.
Outside on the highway, Zintani fighters were dug in to
defend the airport they say they are officially sanctioned to
protect as part of Libya's armed forces. Young fighters in
Toyota trucks mounted with canons guarded the road.
"They are strong and we are strong," said Mohammed, a Zintan
fighter inside the airport terminal, which has been damaged by
shelling. "When we fought Gaddafi's army, they did not resist
more than two hours. Now we are fighting for ten days and no one
Inside the main terminal, debris was scattered across the
floor of the passenger area, where a hole has opened in the
ceiling from a shell hit. An empty wheelchair sat among rubble
in the check-in area packed with travellers just weeks before.
Clashes over Tripoli's airport involving heavy weapons have
killed around 50 people and made parts of Tripoli look like they
were caught in a civil war once again.
In one southern Tripoli neighbourhood, earthen barriers
closed off roads where militias had marked the frontline.
Burned-out cars and bullet-pockmarked walls were evidence of
Three years after Gaddafi's fall, Libya's fragile transition
to democracy has often been battered by infighting and militia
violence as armed groups use military muscle to make demands.
With no real national army, Libya's government has recruited
former fighters as quasi-official security forces, but loyalties
are often stronger to region, tribe or local commanders.
Armed groups have also targeted Libya's oil industry,
shutting oilfields and ports to give their demands more weight.
Western governments, worried over Libya's chaos spilling
across its borders, have urged a militia ceasefire and pushed
for a settlement to be worked out within a newly appointed
parliament, due to take office in August.
But the previous parliament, known as the General National
Congress, was deadlocked for months by infighting between
Islamist and nationalist factions. Rival militias attacked the
parliament several times to pressure for demands.
After days of on-and-off shelling and rocket fire, Tripoli
appeared quieter by Friday night. But after weeks of clashes,
the two sides maybe more polarised than before.
Zintan brigades and their Tripoli allies - the QaaQaa and
al-Sawaiq units, including some ex-Gaddafi forces who rebelled -
are loosely associated with the nationalist National Forces
Alliance movement in the former parliament.
Opposing them are a range of Islamist-leaning militias led
by Misrata forces, tied to the Justice and Construction Party,
an arm of Muslim Brotherhood. Like Zintan, they also claim to be
a legitimate forces and inheritors of the 2011 revolt.
"I don't know if there will be peace between Misrata and
Zintan, but I don't want any civilian lives lost," said another
Zintan fighter named Ahmed. "But I do know they just really want
to take this airport from us."
(Reporting by Patrick Markey, editing by G Crosse)