Heavy clashes broke out in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Monday, leaving at least 10 people dead and shutting the airport during what the government said was an attempt to spring militants from a nearby prison.
The attack triggered the heaviest fighting in Tripoli for months, undercutting claims by the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) to have largely stabilized the city. It also undermines GNA efforts to persuade diplomatic missions to return.
Automatic gunfire and artillery rounds could be heard from the city center early in the day and Mitiga airport, which operates all civilian air traffic to and from the capital, said flights had been suspended until further notice.
The fighting pitted the Special Deterrence Force (Rada), one of Tripoli’s most powerful groups, against a rival faction based in the Tajoura neighborhood.
Rada acts as an anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit and controls Mitiga airport and a large prison next to it. It is aligned with the GNA and is occasionally targeted by rivals whose members it has arrested.
Rada said the airport had been attacked by a group headed by “Bashir ‘the Cow’” and others it had been seeking following their escape from a detention facility controlled by Rada elsewhere in Tripoli.
The GNA said the attack had endangered the lives of passengers, affected aviation safety and terrorized residents.
“This assault was aimed at freeing terrorists from Daesh (Islamic State) and al Qaeda and other organizations,” it said in a statement. The attack had been repelled, and an operation to secure the area was ongoing, it said. The fighting had largely died down by the afternoon.
Rada posted pictures of streets around the airport, showing pick-up trucks mounted with guns and a tank.
The bodies of at least 10 combatants had been brought to a nearby hospital, a health ministry official said. At least 13 people had been wounded, three of them seriously, he said.
Mitiga is a military air base near the center of Tripoli that has also hosted civilian flights since the international airport was put out of service by fighting in 2014.
Tripoli has been controlled by a patchwork of armed groups since a 2011 uprising that toppled long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi and led to the splintering of the country. There have been rival governments in Tripoli and the east since 2014, when
The Tripoli factions sometimes clash in turf battles or over killings or detentions of their members.
But there had been less open fighting in recent months after several groups aligned with the GNA, including Rada, consolidated their control of large parts of the capital and ousted groups tied to a previous, Islamist-linked Tripoli government.
The United Nations is trying to pave the way for elections in Libya by the end of the year, which it hopes can help stabilize the oil-producing nation.