A huge fuel depot in Libya's capital, Tripoli, burned out of control Monday, set ablaze in fighting between rival militias that has driven the country to chaos three years after the NATO-backed revolt that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Conflict over control of the nearby airport forced firefighters to withdraw, abandoning their attempts to extinguish the blaze, which was ignited by a missile strike that hit more than 1 million gallons of fuel. Libyan television stations called on residents to evacuate areas within a 3-mile radius of the airport, as many Libyan families scrambled to leave.
Mohammed al-Harari, the spokesman for the Libyan National Oil Company, told The Associated Press that if the fire was not brought under control, it could ignite liquid gas nearby. By Monday afternoon, the blaze had spread to a second depot.
The battle for control of the airport began two weeks ago when Islamist-led militias — mostly from the western city of Misrata — launched a surprise assault on the airport, which has been under the control of a rival militia from the western mountain town of Zintan. It wasn't clear which side started the oil depot blaze.
The two rival brigades have pounded each other's positions with Grad rockets, artillery fire and cannons, turning the south of the capital into a battlefield. Nearly 160 people in Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi have died in the fighting.
Libya's interim government said in a statement that the fire could trigger a "humanitarian and environmental disaster," as it appealed for international help to extinguish the inferno.
But foreign governments have looked on powerless as anarchy sweeps across the North African oil producer. Over the past two weeks, a number of countries have urged their nationals to leave, shut their embassies and pulled diplomats out.
German embassy staff in Tripoli were evacuated Monday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Sawsan Chebli told The AP. They will be sent back "as soon as the security situation allows," she said. The Netherlands, the Philippines, and Austria were all preparing to evacuate diplomatic staff on Monday as well.
On Saturday, the United States evacuated its diplomatic staff from Tripoli to neighboring Tunisia and shut its embassy. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the “freewheeling militia violence” had been a real risk for American diplomats on the ground, and called for an end to the violence. U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were killed by a militia group in Benghazi in September 2012.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya and the International Committee of the Red Cross have already withdrawn their staff.
More than three years after Gaddafi's downfall, Libya is wracked by a bout of violence amid growing lawlessness in the country. Libya's weak interim government relies on militias filled with rebels who battled Gaddafi's forces as the country’s semi-official security forces. The government has even put thousands of these ex-rebels on the state payroll in an attempt to co-opt them.
But often their loyalties to region, tribe or faction are stronger, and Tripoli has struggled to rein them in. Fighting now involves two loose confederations of armed factions and their political allies in Tripoli and Benghazi, whose deepening standoff is shaping Libya's transition. Militia fighters have repeatedly stormed parliament and taken over ministries.
In an attempt to stem the violence and prevent the country from sliding towards civil war, Libya’s government and special envoys from the U.S., the U.N. and European countries over the weekend pushed for a cease-fire and a political deal within the newly elected parliament, which is due to begin sessions in August.
"We have been working to try and improve the situation in Libya through the work of our special envoy alongside the U.S. special envoy, to try and get more of a dialogue going," British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokeswoman told Reuters.
Al Jazeera and wire services