MISURATA, Libya -- A renegade militia seeking to storm its way into Libya's capital battled for control of the international airport Saturday in a showdown that threatened to spill into bloody urban combat in the streets of Tripoli.
Fighters loyal to warlord Khalifa Hifter said they had overrun the airport on the southern edge of the city. But forces for Libya's United Nations-backed government mounted a counterattack -- aided by reinforcements flowing into the city -- and it remained unclear which side held the airfield by nightfall.
The airport has been closed since it suffered widespread damage during battles of rival groups in 2014. But it would be a symbolic blow to the government if the site fell to Hifter, who could use it as a key staging ground for further advances.
Hifter's militia is aligned with a separate administration based in eastern Libya. The country, rich in oil and gas reserves, has been split into rival regions for years as the United Nations and others try to hammer out a peace deal and set a road map for elections.
Hifter's offensive could usher in the most significant escalation of violence since the toppling of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Hifter was a general in Gadhafi's army but defected and spent years living in northern Virginia. He returned to Libya to take part in the revolution against Gadhafi's rule.
Hundreds of truckloads of fighters from different militias left the city of Misurata on Saturday, heading to Tripoli to help fend off Hifter's forces, said militia sources and residents of Misurata, about 120 miles east of the capital.
Militias from other pro-government cities such as Zintan also moved into Tripoli, according to photos posted on social media.
In Misurata, a radio station sent out a rallying cry to its listeners: "Everyone who owns a gun please go to Tripoli right away to fight for your country against Hifter."
Fayez Sarraj, chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, said his government had offered concessions to Hifter "to avoid bloodshed and to end divisions" and was surprised by Hifter's order to take the capital.
"We were stabbed in the back," he said Saturday in televised comments.
"We extended our hands in peace," Sarraj said. "But this assault by Hifter's forces will be met only with decisiveness and force."
Tripoli is a city accustomed to militia violence. In some neighborhoods, life remained typical Saturday with people shopping and going to work or school, said residents reached by phone.
"The city is normal," said Jamal Mustafa, 35, an employee at a Libyan overseas investment firm. "People are shopping and going out and doing their routines."
But in neighborhoods closer to the fighting, residents were preparing for the worst. Many remained inside their homes, as heavily armed militia vehicles steadily drove through to the front line.
Jamal Ramadan, 42, whose house is less than 3 miles from the old airport, decided to flee.
"We could hear heavy shelling and gunshots," said the taxi driver and father of three children, ages 3 to 6. "My wife told me she was too afraid to stay. So we got a few clothes and left. We are not going to gamble our lives on this."
They drove about 90 miles to stay with his wife's relatives.
"We don't want Hifter to come," said Mustafa. "Anyone who wants to rule the country like Gadhafi is unacceptable."
Human Rights Watch on Saturday raised concerns of possible abuses happening if fighting escalated inside the capital. Activists accuse Hifter's fighters of committing numerous human-rights violations, including summary executions, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and arbitrary detentions.
Pro-government militias also have a track record of abuses against civilians, the watchdog group said.
"Whenever rival armed forces clash in Libyan cities, it's civilians who suffer the most," Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement. "All sides need to abide by the laws and minimize civilian harm."
Earlier Saturday, government warplanes targeted Hifter's militiamen in attempts to stop his push toward Tripoli. The warplanes bombed positions of his self-described Libyan National Army that is south of Tripoli, prompting the warlord to declare that his forces would shoot down any aircraft flying over western Libya, media outlets reported. Tripoli residents on social media described hearing fighter jets passing over the city.
Saturday's aerial assault came a day after Hifter's forces were stopped from advancing in Tripoli at a strategic checkpoint and about 100 of his fighters were captured by the pro-government militias, media reports said.
But by Saturday, Hifter's forces appeared to have regrouped. The militia's media office said in a post online that the fighters took full control of the Tripoli airport and were working to secure the facility. The militia posted photos of fighters apparently inside the airport, saying "we are standing at the heart of the Tripoli international airport."
The media office said that fighters also captured the area of Wadi el-Rabeia, south of Tripoli, in clashes with militias loyal to Sarraj.
There was no immediate response from the Tripoli government nor the militias that back it.
Ahmed al-Mesmari, spokesman for Hifter's Libyan National Army, said 14 fighters had been killed since Hifter declared the offensive. He said rival militias launched four airstrikes Saturday targeting Hifter's position in the town of al-Aziziya, but that no casualties had been reported.
Al-Mesmari said Hifter's forces declared Tripoli a no-fly zone for warplanes.
Hifter's forces have reached the edges of the capital, al-Mesmari said at a news conference in Benghazi late Saturday. "This is Tripoli, brothers," he said. "Your forces are advancing in every direction."
He said Hifter had issued orders against using the Libyan National Army's fleet of old Russian jets in the battle, but threatened to target bases of the Tripoli government's jets that carried out the strikes.
FEAR FOR CONFERENCE
On Thursday, Hifter ordered his forces to seize control of Tripoli after their takeover of Gharyan, a town roughly 60 miles south of the capital. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres personally intervened in a bid to stop the fighting but failed Friday to persuade Hifter to halt his offensive.
Hifter's attempted power grab also risked setting off a fresh wave of people heading toward Libya's borders or attempting to reach Europe over dangerous sea routes in the Mediterranean. Fearing a spillover of refugees, neighboring Tunisia has tightened control over its border.
Also of concern is that a power vacuum and more insecurity could allow the Islamic State's affiliate, which once ruled the city of Sirte, to regroup.
The United Nations, the United States and other governments, including France, and the United Arab Emirates, which supports Hifter, have all demanded that he pull back his forces. On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for restraint from all sides at a news conference in Cairo.
Group of Seven foreign ministers expressed "deepest concern" in a joint statement on Saturday after a meeting in Dinard, France.
Any escalation in fighting threatens to torpedo a U.N.-sponsored reconciliation conference to forge a path forward for elections.
The U.N. envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salame, said the U.N. is determined to hold the planned national conference later this month to set a time for possible elections.
Speaking at a news conference in Tripoli, he said he was striving to prevent the new crisis from getting out of control. "We have worked for one year for this national conference, we won't give up this political work quickly," he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post; by Rami Musa of The Associated Press; and by Samer Khalil Al-Atrush, Hatem Mohareb, Saleh Sarrar and Gregory Viscusi of Bloomberg News.
Fayez Sarraj, chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, said his government was “stabbed in the back” by Hifter’s surprise order to his troops after Sarraj’s government offered concessions to avoid a bloody offensive.
A Section on 04/07/2019
Print Headline: Libyans rush to fight off rogue militia