Amidst Mass Evacuations, Libya Calls for Aid as Oil Depot Fires Rage at Tripoli International AirportJuly 29, 2014 in Libya, Terrorism
29 July – A raging fire has broken out at Tripoli International Airport after continued battles between rival militias. On Monday, an oil depot was struck in the crossfire between the warring groups, causing the depot to catch fire and rage out of control. By Monday afternoon, the blaze had spread to a second depot. According to a spokesman from the Libyan National Oil company, the depot has a six-million litre capacity.
While fire trucks from nearby cities have rushed to Tripoli, Libya’s interim government has appealed for international help to extinguish the fire, fearing it could become a “humanitarian and environmental disaster”. The government has also called upon “all concerned parties to immediately stop firing as the situation has become very grave.” Residents within a five-kilometre radius of the airport have been ordered to evacuate.
The fighting began nearly two weeks earlier, when Islamist militias from Misrata launched a surprise assault on the airport, which is under the control of the liberal Zintan militia. The Zintan militia is one of the largest and most disciplined militia groups in Libya, and has recently allied itself with “rogue” General Khalifa Hifter, a former member of the Gadhafi regime that returned to Libya after the dictator was toppled. Hifter has been conducting an offensive against Islamist militias, mainly in Benghazi, since May.
In Benghazi, clashes between Hifter’s forces and Islamist militias raged throughout Saturday and into Sunday morning, hitting civilian homes and causing a number of casualties and injuries. Officials from Hifter’s forces have stated that four camps captured by the militias were regained in a siege that killed eight militants. Among the militants was Ahmed al-Zahawi, whose brother, Mohammed al-Zahawi, is the leader of the militant group Ansar al-Sharia. It is believed that Ansar al-Sharia was behind the 2012 attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi that left four dead, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens.
As fighting between the groups in Benghazi and Tripoli has escalated, the several nations have warned their citizens to leave. In mid-July, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) evacuated all remaining staff. On Sunday, the French Foreign Ministry called on all French nationals to leave the war-torn nation. The same day, gunmen fired on a convoy of British Embassy staff, in what Libyan investigators believe was an attempted carjacking. No casualties or injuries were reported, however the UK foreign office has advised all citizens to leave the nation immediately, warning of the likelihood of further attacks on foreign nationals. Similar warnings have been issued by the Dutch, Turkish, German, Indian, Spanish and Italian governments. The Canadian government urged citizens to avoid or leave Libya, and announced that while the consulate is open, consular services are “extremely limited due to continuing political instability and violence.” Egypt has warned all Egyptian nationals to evacuate Tripoli and Benghazi.
Despite the warnings, however, exiting the country has become difficult with the closure of Tripoli International Airport. The airport was shut down on 14 July after intense fighting between the Zintan and Misrata-based Islamist militias. The Islamist groups fired dozens of Grad rockets, and used anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weaponry to target the airport. Reports indicate that up to 90% of the aircraft on the ground were destroyed, along with the airport control tower. A hall used for customs was also hit. Last week, the Libyan Civil Aviation Ministry announced that Al Afriqiya, Tunisair, and Libyan Airlines have resumed limited air operations from Tripoli-based Mitiga airport, as well as Misrata airport, nearly 200 km east of the capital. However, the recommended method of evacuation has been “small batch” exits through checkpoints on Libya’s western border with Tunisia, or through eastern checkpoints into Egypt.
In mid-July, a spokesperson for the Libyan government, Ahmed Lamine, said that the government is “looking into the possibility of making an appeal for international forces on the ground to re-establish security and help the government impose its authority”. The Libyan government is now calling for aid in extinguishing the intense oil depot fires, but sources indicate that the government has made an appeal for international forces to aid in the protection of civilians, prevent anarchy, and allow the government to build up its army and police.
Nations neighbouring Libya, including Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia, met for a ministerial conference on the Libyan issue on 14 July in Tunisia. The group discussed the dual goals of brokering talks aimed at eliminating the terrorist threat in Libya and preventing violence from reaching their borders. As nations and NGOs evacuate citizens and staff, it is uncertain who will come to Libya’s aid as they step ever closer toward becoming a failed state.