Up to 6,000 people a day have fled Libya into neighboring Tunisia this week, the Tunisian foreign minister said Wednesday. The mass exodus marks the biggest outpouring of Libyan nationals since the North African nation’s 2011 civil war, 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 seen in the Libyan capital since the war. Nearly 100 people have been killed, 400 others 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, with firefighters largely unable to put it down because of clashes.
A temporary cease-fire had been imposed while firefighting efforts were underway, but it was not immediately clear whether rival factions had abided by the call to lay down arms.
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 of the newly elected parliament on Aug. 4.
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, some with Islamist ideologies and varying loyalties to local commanders, have battled for strategic power — including control of he Tripoli airport. Meanwhile 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 said they were coming 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 mid-July at least 14 Tunisian troops were killed in the south, one of the largest attacks on the nation’s military in recent history — and a sign that Tunisia may be confronting a growing security threat from regional armed groups.
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 continued non-stop in the eastern city of Benghazi, where Islamic militants handed a defeat to a renegade army general, Khalifa Haftar, 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, bringing the toll from the week to nearly 70 dead.
The violence comes after a parliament 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, meaning their party loyalties are undetermined.
The head of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, Mohammed Sawan, said the attempt to take the airport was prompted by fear that Haftar will move his campaign to Tripoli, especially after the militias running the airport declared their backing for the general.
Sawan, of the Justice and Construction Party said the armed group that launched an attack on 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."
Many of the militias have been given ostensive government mandates to handle security duties. Islamists' opponents accuse the Islamists of using militias sympathetic to them to try to consolidate their grip over the country after losing elections. Islamists, in turn, accuse their opponents of using militias in their camp to crush democracy over the past year when the parliament was dominated by the Islamist bloc.
Sawan accused Haftar and his allies of liberal lawmakers, government officials and army units — of trying to "reproduce the Gadhafi regime."
Al Jazeera and wire services