Tripoli’s Last Civilian Airport Reopens After Militias Mobilize Against Hifter
A battle for control of the Libyan capital remained deadlocked for a fifth day on Tuesday, as the city’s last civilian airport resumed flights after an airstrike and the United Nations canceled a long-planned peace conference scheduled for later this month.
The airport reopened Tuesday after closing the day earlier, following an airstrike there by the forces of an aspiring strongman, Gen. Khalifa Hifter. But although it resumed flights, the United Nations mission canceled a conference set to take place in Libya.
The cancellation was almost universally expected since troops under General Hifter on Thursday launched a surprise offensive on the capital, Tripoli.
Ghassan Salame, the United Nation’s special representative for Libya, said in a statement that the body “cannot ask Libyans to attend a conference to the backdrop of artillery shelling and air raids.” He said it was “a painful disappointment to once again hear the drumbeats of war and to witness the launch of an offensive prompting the recurrence of fighting.”
Mr. Salame called the attack “a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”
By Tuesday, a newly formed alliance of local and regional militias had mobilized to stop General Hifter, his forces had lost control of the defunct Tripoli International Airport as they edged back in several places, and fighting was continuing on multiple fronts south of the city.
Wolfram Lacher, a scholar of Libya at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs who is tracking the fighting, said the coalition against General Hifter was “growing stronger and stronger, and coordinating more and more effectively” as nearby cities mobilized dormant militias.
Mr. Lacher argued that the strike on the airport showed that General Hifter “is willing to reduce Tripoli to rubble so that he can rule Libya, which is the only option he has left now anyway.”
Tripoli, Libya’s financial hub, is seen as the grand prize in a chaotic fight for control of the country that began in 2011, when the dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi was ousted and killed during the Arab Spring revolts.
António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, condemned the airport attack and urged “the immediate halt of all military operations in order to de-escalate the situation and prevent an all-out conflict,” the United Nations said on Twitter.
Mr. Guterres also said that there was “no military solution” to the conflict, and called on all sides to find a political solution.
After Colonel el-Qaddafi’s fall, Libya collapsed into a patchwork of city-states, and multiple militias began competing for control of the country’s two largest cities, Benghazi in the east and Tripoli in the west.
The attack on Mitiga Airport came four days after forces under General Hifter’s control made a surprise advance on Tripoli’s outskirts, setting up a battle with a coalition of armed factions that operate around the capital.
By Sunday, both sides had begun attacking from the air using small and primitive air forces, and the United States military evacuated its small contingent of troops from Tripoli. General Hifter’s air force bombed Mitiga International Airport on Monday, possibly in desperation, as his other forces retreated on several nearby fronts.
Ahmed Mismari, a spokesman for General Hifter’s forces, told Reuters that the strike at the airport had not been directed at civilian planes, only at a Russian-built MiG fighter parked there. Agence France-Presse reported that the airstrike hit a runway but did not cause casualties.
It was not the first time a civilian airport was bombed in Libya. In 2014, pitched battles between feuding militias badly damaged most of Tripoli International Airport’s tower, runways and commercial airplanes. That airport, which has not operated for years, has been a site of clashes in recent days.
On Monday, The Associated Press reported that the combined combatant and civilian death toll from recent fighting around Tripoli had risen to at least 51. The United Nations said that recent fighting had displaced more than 3,400 people.
A United Nations spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said in a statement that an unknown number of civilians had been unable to flee residential areas affected by the fighting around Tripoli. He called for a temporary truce to allow for emergency services and the voluntary passage of civilians.
The World Health Organization also said that two doctors had been killed in Tripoli while providing critical services to civilians.
“These doctors risked their lives to evacuate wounded patients from conflict areas, and targeting them and health facilities at such times worsens the situation for civilians caught up in conflict,” Ahmed Al Mandhari, the W.H.O.’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said in statement.