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Libyans flee as militia clashes intensify

Tunisian says up to 6,000 crossing border daily seeking refuge from violence

By BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA and MAGGIE MICHAEL The Associated Press

This article was published July 31, 2014 at 5:04 a.m.

TUNIS, Tunisia -- Up to 6,000 people a day have fled Libya into neighboring Tunisia this week, the Tunisian foreign minister said Wednesday, the biggest influx since Libya's 2011 civil war and a sign of the spiraling turmoil as rival militias battle over control of the airport in the capital, Tripoli.

The weeks-long fighting is the worst violence in the Libyan capital since the war. Nearly 100 people have been killed and 400 wounded, and much of the airport has been destroyed. A giant fire has been raging the past three days after shelling hit airport oil depots, forcing nearby residents to evacuate. Firefighters have largely been unable to put it down because of clashes.

Many diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador, have pulled out of the country. With the interim government paralyzed, the fighting threatens the planned opening session Monday of the newly elected parliament.

The violence is the latest chaos in a country where the central government, military and security forces have had no control since the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in the 2011 civil war. Instead, rival militias have filled the void, all with varying loyalties to local commanders, some with Islamist ideologies. On the political front, Islamist politicians and their opponents have wrangled for control of the government.

Tunisian Foreign Minister Monji Hamdi did not give a full figure for the number of Libyans who have entered the country in recent days, but he said they were going at a rate of 5,000 to 6,000 a day and that the rate was increasing.

He said Tunisia cannot absorb large numbers of refugees and warned his government could close the border.

"Our absolute priority is the security and stability of Tunisia, and we will close the border if necessary," he told reporters in Tunis.

In the Tripoli fighting, Islamist-led militias mainly from the city of Misrata are trying to wrest control of the airport from a rival militia, originally from the mountain town of Zintan.

As the airport fighting has raged, deadly clashes have continued in the eastern city of Benghazi, where Islamic militants handed a defeat to a renegade army general, Khalifa Hifter, who for months has been waging a campaign to stamp out militants.

The militants this week overran a series of army bases held by the general's loyalists. On Wednesday, the Red Crescent said it retrieved 35 bodies from one of the bases, raising the toll from the week to nearly 70 dead.

That blow to army units sparked street demonstrations in Benghazi late Wednesday. Thousands of young protesters raised signs reading "No militias. Yes to army and police." They marched to a central hospital called al-Jalaa, controlled by Ansar al-Shariah, expelled the militias and took control of it, hospital spokesman Fadia al-Barghathi said.

Ansar al-Shariah is branded a terrorist organization by the United States and is seen as having a leading role in the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in 2012, which left four Americans dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

The violence comes after a parliamentary election in which Islamist politicians, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, are believed to have lost their political dominance -- though the final alignments in the body are not clear because all candidates ran as independents.

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, Mohammed Sawan, declared his support Wednesday for the Islamist militias that attacked the airport. He called the assault a "legitimate" response to the campaign by Hifter to crush Islamists.

Sawan, of the Justice and Construction Party, said the attempt to take the airport was prompted by fear that Hifter will move his campaign to Tripoli, especially after the militias running the airport declared their backing for the general.

He said the armed group that attacked militias controlling the airport had been mandated by the outgoing speaker of parliament -- a pro-Islamist politician -- to keep security in the capital.

"This makes it legitimate," he said, adding that the assault aims to "bring the airport under state control."

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