Rockets hit airport in Libya's capital, damaging passenger jet

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Rockets hit Libya’s main airport and damaged a plane as it was waiting to take off early on Thursday, a security force said, underscoring fragile security.

One rocket hit an Airbus 320 of state-run Libyan Airlines, and others struck the arrivals hall at Tripoli’s Mitiga airport at around 2 a.m.(0000 GMT), but no one was injured, a spokesman for the Special Deterrence Force (Rada) said.

Photos circulating on social media showed a tear in the tarmac and holes in the wing and body of the plane.

Tripoli has been controlled by a patchwork of armed groups since a 2011 uprising that toppled long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi and splintered the country.

Armed groups fighting for territory and power have regularly attacked the city’s transport hubs - undermining the government’s efforts to persuade diplomatic missions to return to the capital.

There have been rival governments in Tripoli and the east since 2014, when most diplomatic missions evacuated to neighboring Tunisia.

Airlines have struggled to maintain services and keep the oil-producing country connected to the outside world as attacks damage their planes.

Mitiga is the only operating airport in Tripoli. Fighting in 2014 put the main international airport out of service.

Rada, a security group aligned to Libya’s internationally recognized government that controls the airport, said the rockets were fired by men loyal to a militia leader known as Bashir “the Cow” Khalfalla, a group it has clashed with before and which it blames for regular nighttime shelling of Mitiga.

Italy and Turkey reopened their embassies in Tripoli last year. U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame is now based in the city, where he held a series of meetings on Thursday and attended an art exhibition with Prime Minister Fayez Seraj in the evening. French Ambassador Brigitte Curmi was also in the capital, holding talks with Libyan officials.

When asked whether elections would be held this year, Salame said after meeting Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siyala: “Sure. We promised this the U.N. Security Council.” He did not elaborate.

The United Nations launched a new round of talks in September in Tunis between the rival factions to prepare for elections in 2018, but divisions have so far prevented any accord.

Reporting by Tripoli newsroom; writing by Ulf Laessing and Aidan Lewis; editing by Andrew Heavens and Cynthia Osterman