A plume of smoke rises in the sky after a rocket hit a fuel storage tank near the airport in Tripoli. (Reuters)
Tripoli, July 28 (Reuters): A rocket hit a fuel storage tank in a chaotic battle for Tripoli airport that has all but closed off international flights to Libya, leaving fire-fighters struggling to extinguish a giant conflagration.
Foreign governments have looked on powerless as anarchy sweeps across the North African oil producer, three years after Nato bombardment helped topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi. They have urged nationals to leave Libya and have pulled diplomats out after two weeks of clashes among rival factions killed nearly 160 people in Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi.
The Netherlands, the Philippines and Austria prepared to evacuate diplomatic staff. The US, UN and Turkish embassies have already shut operations after the worst violence since the 2011 uprising.
Two rival brigades of former rebels fighting for control of Tripoli International Airport have pounded each other's positions with Grad rockets, artillery fire and cannons for two weeks, turning the south of the capital into a battlefield.
In the three messy years since the fall of Gaddafi, Libya’s fragile government and fledging army have been unable to control heavily armed former anti-Gaddafi fighters, who refuse to hand over weapons and continue to rule the streets.
Libya has appealed for international help to stop the country from becoming a failed state. Western partners fear chaos spilling across borders with arms smugglers and militants already profiting from the turmoil. In neighbouring Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has repeatedly warned about militants capitalising on Libya’s chaos to set up bases along their mutual frontier.
Today, a huge cloud of black smoke trailed across the skies of Tripoli a day after the rocket hit a fuel storage tank near the airport containing six million of litres of fuel. Nearby residents were evacuated.
Libya’s government has asked for international help to try to contain the disaster at the fuel depot on the airport road. The conflict has forced Tripoli International Airport to shut down. Airliners were reduced to smouldering hulks on the tarmac and the aviation control centre was knocked out.
“This crisis is causing lots of confusion, lots of foreigners are leaving and diplomats are also departing through here,” said Salah Qahdrah, security controller at Mitiga air base, now a secondary airport operating limited flights.
India today advised all its nationals in Libya to leave the country or stay away from parts of Tripoli and Benghazi, adds our special correspondent.
The Indian embassy in Tripoli, in an advisory published on its website, asked Indian citizens in the country to “use all available means for exiting Libya”. It asked Indians to steer clear of the area around Tripoli International Airport after a militia took control of the facility.
Instead, the advisory says, Indians could try and leave the country either from Mitaga airport in Tripoli, or Misurata — about 200km from the Libyan capital. Indian nationals, the embassy said, could also leave by land, entering Tunisia or Egypt.
Over 6,000 Indian nationals are currently in Libya. The fresh round of violence comes three years after Libyans overthrew the Gaddafi government in a bloody revolution. India had then evacuated almost 18,000 nationals from the country — plucking some out in airlifting operations and the rest using ships.
But over the past year, several Indians — especially nurses, doctors, medical technicians and executives working with medical firms — have returned to Libya. The Libyan government, this past weekend, declared to the UN that it was helpless in stopping the warring militias.