Libya crisis: Tensions rise as Tripoli airport seized

media captionThe BBC's Rana Jawad says the airport has exchanged militia hands

An armed militia alliance in Libya has captured Tripoli's international airport after a battle lasting nearly a month.

Islamist-affiliated forces from Misrata and other cities took over the airport from the Zintan militia, which has held it for three years.

Libya's new parliament, largely opposed to the Islamists, condemned the move.

Violence in Libya has surged recently between the rival groups who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in the 2011 uprising.

The airport, Libya's largest, has been closed for over a month because of the fighting.

Hundreds have died since fighting broke out in Tripoli in July. Millions of dollars in damage has been caused to the airport.

'Sovereignty' at stake

Libya's new parliament, the House of Representatives, said the groups now in control of the airport were "terrorist organisations".

image copyrightReuters
image captionThe airport and the area around it have seen fierce clashes in recent weeks
image copyrightReuters
image captionMuch of Tripoli's infrastructure has been damaged in the fighting

The new parliament, which is based in Tobruk because of violence in Libya's main cities, has repeatedly called for the militia groups wielding power in the country to disband the join the nascent national army.

But so far, few have shown a willingness to disarm.

Analysis by the BBC's Rana Jawad in Tripoli

The significance of one militia seizing Tripoli's airport from another is difficult for many civilians in the capital to grasp - especially those displaced by the fighting, and families who have had to bury their dead after stray rockets hit their homes.

Libya's main airport is a wreck, but it didn't stop those who overran it taking pictures of each other celebrating what they see as a victory.

It's a symbolic win for them and their backers. However, as long as Libya's airports, oil terminals, ports and other key institutions are run by militias on either side of the divide, nothing has really changed on the ground.

It won't until the state takes control, and it is nowhere near doing so.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Misratan-led militia alliance called for the previous Islamist-dominated parliament to reconvene.

Umar Humaydan, who was himself a spokesman for the previous parliament, said that the move was necessary to "save the country's sovereignty".

It follows claims by the Misratan-led forces that they were targeted by mystery airstrikes for a second time this week.

However, correspondents say the call is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Explosions in capital

Our correspondent in Tripoli says there were unconfirmed reports of battles continuing between rival armed groups on the outskirts of the city on Saturday evening. Explosions could also be heard in the capital.

The capture of the airport is a setback for Zintani forces, who are loosely allied to Gen Khalifa Haftar.

The ex-army chief, whose forces mainly operate in the east of the country, launched a campaign earlier this year against what he termed the "Islamist-dominated" government.

image copyrightAFP
image captionFighting is also raging in the eastern coastal city of Benghazi

The country's militias and political parties alike have had shifting alliances over the last two years.

Our correspondent says that the struggle is not a clear-cut Islamist versus nationalist battle because some militias are essentially fighting for their continued existence and empowerment.

Thousands have fled their homes to escape the violence.

More than three years after Gaddafi was overthrown and killed, Libya's police and army remain weak in comparison with the militias who control large parts of the country.

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