Libya's U.N.-backed government moves to secure Tripoli's main airport

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - A force operating under Libya’s U.N.-brokered government said on Thursday it was securing Tripoli’s main airport, which has been closed since it was badly damaged in fighting in 2014 and which was controlled by a rival faction until last week.

An airplane flies over Tripoli International Airport in Tripoli, Libya, February 16, 2017. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

The Presidential Guard formed by the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) was able to access Tripoli International Airport after loosely aligned armed groups gained ground in heavy fighting in the capital last Friday.

The GNA has struggled to impose its authority since arriving in Tripoli in March last year and to rein in militias that still hold sway on the ground. It has been rejected by factions in eastern Libya loyal to powerful military commander Khalifa Haftar.

The capture of the airport shows a gradual extension of the power of armed groups in Tripoli that have at least tolerated the GNA’s presence.

The airport, which lies about 25 km (15 miles) south of central Tripoli, had been controlled by armed groups loyal to a previous, self-declared government.

On Thursday, a passenger jet swooped low over the airport in an effort to demonstrate to journalists gathered there that it was secured.

“We are in Tripoli international airport which is free from the control of any group,” the head of the Presidential Guard, Najmi Al-Nakua, told reporters. “Now it’s secured by legitimate forces.”

He said a number of military camps and other strategic locations had also been handed over to the army or other competent authorities after Friday’s clashes.

The airport’s terminal building was largely destroyed in fighting three years ago that left Libya with two competing governments, one in Tripoli and the other in the east.

Since then, international and domestic flights have operated out of Mitiga airport, just east of the city center.

“We have received the airport with all its facilities,” said deputy transport minister Hesham Abu Shelaiwat.

“All the technical cadres will gradually return to their work. It takes two weeks to assess the facilities.”

Reporting by Ahmed Elumami; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Andrew Bolton