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Camels evacuated from Libya's capital after port comes under fire

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Three thousand camels have been walked out of Libya’s capital Tripoli in an overnight evacuation after the port where they arrived came under artillery fire.

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The camels left Tripoli’s port shortly after midnight on Wednesday, and were herded along a highway leading west to the city of Zawiya, some 45 km (30 miles) away, where they arrived on Thursday morning, according to a local merchant.

A Reuters reporter saw about 20 camel herders whipping the camels into line as they left central Tripoli, with some camels trying to search for food along the side of the road. Security forces temporarily closed the road to let them pass.

Tripoli’s port, which is close to the city center, was shelled on Tuesday by forces loyal to east Libya-based commander Khalifa Haftar, who has been waging an offensive to take Tripoli for more than 10 months.

He has been battling forces aligned with the internationally recognized government, which is based in Tripoli.

The merchant said that a local armed group had stolen 125 of the camels as they passed through the Tripoli suburb of Janzour.

But after Reuters published its story, local authorities provided the news agency with a copy of a letter they said was from the camels’ owner, Mohammed Amer Ishkal, in which he said all 3,000 of them had arrived safely in Zawiya after he imported them from Ethiopia.

The council of Janzour also denied that any camels were stolen. Abdulsalam Ben Gharsa, an official in the Janzour municipality told Reuters that local security forces had secured the passage of the camel herd for three hours on the night it passed through the town and that none were stolen.

Reuters was unable to reach the camels’ owner for comment.

The Libyan capital has been the scene of several rounds of fighting since former ruler Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011.

The conflict has caused a sharp decline in living standards in the oil-rich nation, including power cuts and fuel shortages.

The camels would normally have been driven to Zawiya in trucks, but none were available, so the owner decided to make them walk for fear that the port would come under renewed fire.

As the camels were being herded along the road, some onlookers made fun of the government, saying it was bringing in camels as a substitute form of transport because of the lack of petrol.

Reporting by Ahmed Elumami; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Alison Williams