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Libya torn apart

Rival parliaments meet in Tripoli and Tobruk, after ferocious battles by militias who four years ago fought together to topple a dictatorship. All civilians want now is an end to the violence
Militants of Fajr Libya (Libyan Dawn) coalition appear at the International Tripoli Airport after seizing control of the airport after a month-long battle, on 24 August (AA)

Some might view the "Welcome to Libya" sign in the arrival lounge of what used to be the country's main airport as more ironic than factual. The airport, along with the last remaining bases of rival armed groups, have all fallen under the control of militas allied to Libya's former parliament in Tripoli.

Rival parliaments in Tripoli and Tobruk claim legitimacy. Meeting for the first time on Monday, the former parliament in Tripoli appointed its own prime minister, while the house of the acting prime minister was torched. The army and police are so weak they can barely contain protest marches, let alone deal with countless, armed, ethnic and tribal militas; ammunition bunkers are bombed in the middle of the night by unidentified military aircraft.

“Life here is mess” said Heba a 40 year old resident of Tripoli, “Banks are closed and no salaries have been paid by the government” she said.

The Islamist leaning predecessor, the General National Congress (GNC), lost heavily in the last elections. A new anti-islamist majority parliament calling itself the House of Representatives (HoR) moved out of the capital (Tripoli) and set up shop in the northeastern city of Tobruk.

The HoR were elected in June, after many called for the end of the GNC and protests were held in Tripoli and Benghazi, “I voted for the HoR” said Heba “If the GNC love their country they will step down” she added.

The political conflict in Libya between Islamist groups and anti-Islamist politicians has spilled onto the streets of Libya in the form of ferocious battles that destroy anything that stand in their way. The militias, who linked together to  topple the dictator Muammar Gaddafi have lost all sight of what they fought for in 2011, as they vie for power, control of the Libyan capital and oil revenues .

“We don’t want anymore blood” said Heba, She cared little about who won, whether it be the rival Zintan or Misrata militias, the GNC, or HoR. “All that matters is the safety of Libya” she said.

The election results in June saw Islamist-led militias mainly from the port city of Misrata 200 km east of Tripoli and under the command of GNC member Salah Badi, himself a Misratan, attack the capital's international airport and the country's busiest gateway to the outside world. The airport was at the time under the control of rival non-Islamist militias from the powerful mountain town of Zintan, 160 km southwest of Tripoli.

A barrage of rockets and missiles was launched at the airport in the early hours of Sunday July13, but it has taken over five weeks of brutal fighting to seize it. The final push came early on Sunday just after a second attack by an unidentified military jet, that had bombed Misrata locations just a few days earlier. This last attack successfully targeted an ammunition bunker. More than a dozen militamen were killed, among them two sons of the head of Misrata military council, according to local sources.  

Hundreds have been killed and thousands have fled their homes as many missiles landed on civilian homes. The international airport's main terminal has been destroyed. Pictures were released on social media of Misrata fighters standing next to aircraft that still stand like broken toys on the runway. 

The capital's main fuel storage depot located on a motorway linking the airport to the capital was also hit in crossfire sending high, uncontrollable flames into Tripoli's southwestern sky. Eight tanks were destroyed and the smoke that rose filled Tripoli with the stench of burnt fuel.

“It’s very difficult to live in Tripoli at the moment, what with the lack of security, and that constant fear of being bombed”, said Hisham Takita a communications officer at a building organisation in Tripoli.“I’m leaving Tripoli soon in hope to find a better opportunity” he added.

The atmosphere is tense, bursts of gunfire are heard sporadically and Misrata militias who before the take over of the airport only stationed themselves south of Tripoli, now roam its streets freely. Everyone moves out of the way of the speeding anti-aircraft and missile launchers mounted on 4x4 pickup trucks racing along the motorway.

Esra who lives in Tripoli no longer goes out alone. “My husband drives me everywhere, and we never go out for long” she said, After the Misrata forces took control of the airport, and remaining military bases in southwest Tripoli, they began a manhunt for anyone from the rival city of Zintan. “My cousin saw men from Misrata kidnap someone from Zintan right off the street, just because of where he’s from” said Esra.

The HoR has issued one decree after decree calling for ceasefire, negotiations, and an end to the violence. But with no national army or police force strong enough to confront the militias, the statements were seen by fighters as a joke, and yet another reminder to civilians of how weak their state was.

Most diplomatic missions have already left Libya as this civil war continues to tear the country apart. Speaking for the majority in Libya, Heba is tired of all the death and fighting. She wants an end to the violence: “We just want to live in peace, we don’t care who’s in charge” she said.

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