CAIRO (AP) — Fighting between forces loyal to rival governments over Libya’s capital intensified Saturday with heavy artillery shelling hitting the sole functioning airport in Tripoli, setting jet fuel tanks ablaze and damaging passenger planes, authorities in west Libya and the U.N. said.
The Tripoli-based Transportation Ministry said one of the damaged aircraft had been scheduled to leave Tripoli to bring back Libyans stranded in Spain by the coronavirus lockdown. It blamed east-based forces fighting to take the capital for over a year for the attack.
Libya has been in turmoil since 2011, when a civil war toppled long-time dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country has since split between rival administrations in the east and the west, each backed by armed groups and foreign countries.
Brega Petroleum Marketing Company said the shelling at Mitiga airport set its jet fuel tanks on fire. The company, which is part of Libya’s National Oil Corporation, shared footage of apparent damaged tanks while firefighters try to distinguish the fire.
Authorities had halted civilian flights at Mitiga, which is part of a military base in the capital, in March even before announcing the suspension of air travel as part of its measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
Last year, eastern-based forces under military commander Khalifa Hifter launched an offensive onTripoli, clashing with an array of militias loosely allied with the U.N.-supported but weak government in the capital. The Tripoli authorities are backed by Turkey and Qatar, while the eastern Libya forces are supported by United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
The U.N. support mission in Libya blamed Hifter’s forces for the Mitiga attack.
“Today’s heavy shelling is one in a series of indiscriminate attacks ... killing more than 15 and injuring 50 civilians since May 1,” it said. The mission said most of these attacks were attributable to Hifter's self-styled Libyan Arab Armed Forces.
There was no immediate comment from the LAAF, which has repeatedly claimed that Turkey has used the airport to launch drone attacks on its forces. Tripoli authorities have denied the allegations.
Elsewhere in the capital, the U.N.-supported administration, known as the Government of National Accord, said the LAAF fired over 100 rockets and artillery shells on Tripoli’s residential neighborhoods. The health authorities said at least three people were killed and a dozen were wounded in the shelling. The claims could not independently be verified.
The fighting over Tripoli has threatened to push Libya into a major conflagration on the scale of the 2011 uprising that toppled and later killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.