Monday, 3/8/2020 | 9:34 UTC+0
Libyan Newswire

Libya crisis: Air strike at Tripoli airport as thousands flee clashes

BENGHAZI, Libya Clashes between rival Libyan forces for control of Tripoli escalated Monday as the death toll from days of fighting rose to at least 51, including both combatants and civilians, and the city's only functioning airport said it was hit by an airstrike. The self-styled Libyan National Army, led by Khalifa Haftar who launched the push on Tripoli, acknowledged striking Mitiga airport, barely 8 kilometers east of the city center.

Haftar's forces have clashed with rival militias that support the U.N.-backed government which controls Tripoli and the western part of the country. The U.N. said the latest fighting has so far displaced 3,400 people. The World Health Organization said two doctors were killed trying to evacuate wounded patients from conflict areas.

Ibrahim Fadel, an official at Mitiga, said all flights were suspended until further notice following the airstrike. No casualties were reported in the attack.

The official Facebook page of Mitiga, run by the U.N.-backed government, said a fighter jet attacked the facility but gave no other details. A video circulated online shows a fighter jet firing and apparently targeting the airport, formerly a military base.

Maj. Gen. Mohamed al-Manfour of Haftar's Libyan National Army, told the Libyan Address newspaper they bombed targets at Mitiga after receiving information that the U.N.-backed government forces were preparing to target them.

The U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Libya, Maria do Valle Ribeiro, said the clashes around the Libyan capital have prevented emergency services from reaching casualties and civilians, and have damaged electricity lines.

Meanwhile, fighting was underway Monday at Tripoli's former international airport, some 24 kilometers south of Tripoli, which was closed in 2014 after fighting destroyed much of it.

The government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, 59, is seeking to block the LNA with the help of allied armed groups who have rushed to Tripoli from Misrata in pickup trucks fitted with machine guns.

A Reuters correspondent in the city center could hear gunfire in the distance southward.

Haftar's forces said Saturday they had seized the old airport. However, the militias supporting the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli claimed Monday they recaptured the facility.

The Health Ministry of the Tripoli-based government said at least 27, including civilians, were killed and at least 27 wounded since the start of Haftar's offensive against the capital. The media office of Haftar's army said 22 of their troops had been killed since Thursday.

The LNA says it has 85,000 men, but this includes soldiers paid by the central government that it hopes to inherit. Its elite Saiqa [Lightning] force, numbers some 3,500, while Haftar's sons also have well-equipped troops, LNA sources say.

Analysts say Haftar has swelled his ranks with Salafist fighters and tribesmen as well as Chadians and Sudanese from over the southern borders, claims dismissed by the LNA.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, called on the warring sides to stop fighting and start talking.

Also Monday, U.N. envoy Ghassan Salame said he met with Sarraj, head of the government in Tripoli, to discuss how the U.N. mission can assist at this critical and difficult juncture. Salame later Monday asked for an immediate halt to any further air operations in order to bring the country back from the brink of what he called the effective start of a civil war.

Since Moammar Gadhafi's ouster, Libya has been governed by rival authorities in the east and in Tripoli, in the west, each backed by various militias and armed groups fighting over resources and territory. In Cairo, Agila Saleh, head of Libya's east-based Parliament, backed Haftar's offensive and the Libya National Army, saying that militias have been hijacking the capital.

The violence has jeopardized a U.N. plan for an April 14-16 conference to plan elections and end anarchy that has prevailed since the Western-backed toppling of Gadhafi.