CAIRO – The United Nations said Monday it is withdrawing its staff from Libya temporarily because of deteriorating security after rival militias fought over Tripoli International Airport and a renegade general’s forces continued to battle Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi.
In a statement posted on its official website, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya said that the mission had already been reducing its staff in the country over the past week. It added that fighting on Sunday and the airport’s closure prompted the move to withdraw its staffers.
“This is a temporary measure. Staff will return as soon as security conditions permit. The United Nations, which stood by the Libyan people in their revolution in 2011, will not abandon them as they seek to build a democratic state,” the statement said. It added: “The United Nations looks forward to continuing to work with its Libyan partners and hopes to return to Tripoli as soon as possible.”
Tripoli is witnessing one of its worst spasms of violence since the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, as rival militias fight for control of its airport. The militias, many of which originate from rebel forces that fought Gadhafi, became powerful players in postwar Libya, filling a void left by weak police and a shattered army. Successive governments have put militias on their payroll in return for maintaining order, but rivalries over control and resources have led to fierce fighting among them and posed a constant challenge to the central government and a hoped-for transition to democracy.
At least six people were killed and 25 injured Sunday in the battle over the airport between rival militias. Civil aviation authorities announced a three-day closure of the airport. Shells hit airplanes, damaged shuttle buses and airport entrances, and landed in the parking lot, an airport security official said.
Among the planes hit was an Airbus from Libya’s state-owned Afriqiyah Airways worth $200 million, according to the official Facebook page of its sister airline, Libyan Arab Airlines. It said the crew was transferred to Libya’s third-largest city of Misrata to operate international flights from there.
Pictures posted on the page showed one of the planes with a large hole in its fuselage.
During the day, the militias remained in a standoff around the airport, witnesses say. Militias affiliated with the western town of Zintan, which has been controlling the airport since the end of the war, consolidated their positions inside. Their rivals, including Islamist-led militias from the western city of Misrata and others from Tripoli, have taken positions along the road that leads to the airport.
After sunset, shells rained over Tripoli’s airport. According to one of the Zintan militias controlling the airport, the shelling destroyed an air traffic control tower. The militia, known as Qaaqaa, vowed to respond and urged residents living next to the airport to evacuate for their safety. On its Facebook page, the militia also urged pilots to take planes from the airport and fly them to other airports such as Sabha in the south. It was not immediately possible to get government comment.
The Tripoli fighting follows months of clashes in the eastern city of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the birthplace of its anti-Gadhafi uprising. Led by renegade general Khalifa Hifter, army units are battling extremist Islamist militias of Ansar al-Shariah — blamed for the deadly 2012 assault on the US Consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Hifter launched his campaign in the spring, vowing to drive out extremists. But Libyans are split over the effectiveness of his campaign as civilians have fallen victim in the crossfire. The interim government has called upon all parties to lay down their weapons and refrain from fighting.
On Monday, fighting there spread to central al-Jalaa hospital, leaving at least four dead and 30 injured, according to a medical official at Benghazi Medical Center.