Rockets target airport despite fragile truce in Libya capital

TRIPOLI: The Libyan capital’s only working airport has closed after coming under rocket fire just days after reopening following a UN-backed cease-fire between rival armed groups vying for influence in the country.

The Tuesday night attack underscored the fragility of the latest peace push in Libya, which has been beset by turmoil since the fall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

Several rockets hit the perimeter of Mitiga International Airport on the eastern outskirts of Tripoli without causing any casualties.

Flights were diverted to Misrata, some 200 kilometers  east of the capital, the civil aviation authority said.

Mitiga airport had only reopened on Friday after it was forced to close for a week because of deadly clashes between rival militias in and around Tripoli.

The fighting has killed at least 63 people and wounded 159 others — mostly civilians — since August 27, dousing hopes of elections being held this year.

The UN brokered cease-fire announced on Sept. 4 has largely been respected but witnesses reported brief clashes in the south of the capital on Tuesday night.

That deal includes “radical measures” to restore security in the capital which should be applied from Wednesday, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said on Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday, UNSMIL said on Twitter that a “special meeting” was taking place on security arrangements for Tripoli.

It was attended by the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez Al-Sarraj, as well as military commanders from across western Libya and UN envoy Ghassan Salame.

UNSMIL said the meeting was tackling “how best to consolidate the … cease-fire agreement and the establishment of a monitoring and verification committee.”

It also said the meeting was focusing on “the formation of a committee on security arrangements.”

Thousands of families have fled the violence to nearby towns or have had to seek shelter in other districts of Tripoli, authorities have said.

Several rockets had already struck near the airport last month, forcing authorities to divert all flights to Misrata on that occasion too.

A UN-brokered agreement signed in Morocco in December 2015 establishing the GNA brought hopes of an easing of the chaos that followed Libya’s 2011 revolution.

But divisions remain between the GNA and rivals including military commander Khalifa Haftar, who is based in the east and refuses to recognize the administration’s authority.

Tripoli has been at the center of a battle for influence between armed groups with shifting allegiances since Qaddafi was overthrown and killed.

The UN Panel of Experts on Libya said in a letter to the Security Council on Sept. 5 that armed groups have “increased their influence over Libyan State institutions, promoting their own political and economic interests.”

“The use of violence to take control of State infrastructure and institutions — and threats and attacks against public servants — are widespread across the country and are particularly noticeable in Tripoli,” it said.

Mitiga airport, a former military air base, has been a civilian airport since Tripoli’s main international airport was badly damaged in fighting between rival militias in 2014.

Since then only Libyan airlines have operated in the country, running internal flights and regular connections to a handful of nations, including Tunisia and Turkey.

Libyan airlines are banned from European Union airspace for “security reasons.”

On Wednesday, France’s ambassador to the UN Francois Delattre said his country believes it “essential” that presidential and legislative elections take place in Libya on Dec. 10, in line with a timetable agreed in May.

Extremist groups and people traffickers have taken advantage of the chaos to gain a foothold in Libya.

The Daesh group claimed responsibility on Tuesday for a suicide attack a day earlier against the headquarters of Libya’s National Oil Corporation which killed two employees.

On Wednesday, the US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on the leader of a militia in Libya for attacks on the country’s oil facilities.

The US said Ibrahim Jadhran’s attacks “robbed the Libyan people of billions of dollars in oil revenue.”

Wednesday’s action is part of a push to take forceful action against “rogue criminals and militia forces who undermine peace and security.”

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