CAIRO (AP) — Libya’s Islamist militias said Sunday they have consolidated their hold on Tripoli and its international airport, driving out rival militias to the outskirts of the capital following a weekslong battle for control of the strategic hub.
The umbrella group for Islamist militias calling itself Dawn of Libya said it has also taken hold of other locations in the capital controlled by the rival militias, drawing to a close one chapter in a prolonged confrontation between the Islamist-allied militia, largely from the city of Misrata, and the powerful militia from the western mountains of Zintan.
The fight has largely destroyed the airport and scarred the capital, prompting diplomats, foreign nationals and thousands of Libyans to flee.
The violence in Libya is rooted in the empowerment of militias after successive transitional governments since the 2011 ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi depended on them to maintain order in the absence of a strong police force or a unified military.
It also comes as part of a backlash by Islamist factions after losing their power in parliament following June elections and in the face of a campaign by a renegade military general against extremist Islamic militias in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city.
But this has been the worst bout of violence in the battle over turf and influence since 2011. Mysterious airstrikes have struck the positions of Islamist militias, sparking accusations by the groups that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who oppose Islamists in the region, were behind it.
A field commander of the Dawn of Libya militia said Sunday his forces are in control of Tripoli and adjacent cities, pushing back the rival Zintan forces some 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of the capital. It was not immediately possible to reach members of the Zintan militias.
The commander spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
The fighting on the ground has mirrored a political standoff between Islamists and the outgoing parliament they controlled, and anti-Islamist groups who control the newly elected parliament. Each considers the other illegitimate.
After claiming control over the airport, Dawn of Libya called on the outgoing parliament to convene in the capital to take “the necessary measures to protect state sovereignty.” On Sunday, the speaker of the outgoing parliament, Omar Hmeidan, said the body will convene until it hands over power to the newly elected deputies.
Further inflaming the situation, the newly elected parliament described the Dawn of Libya militias as “outlawed” and “terrorist groups” who fight to undermine the legitimacy of the state.
The newly elected parliament has been convening in Tobruk because of security concerns amid a growing lawlessness in the capital and Libya’s second largest city of Benghazi.
Fresh clashes Saturday in Benghazi pitting forces loyal to renegade Gen. Khalifa Hifter against a group of Islamist militias called The Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council left eight troops killed and 35 wounded, a health official said. There were no immediate reports of casualties from the militias.
Islamist militias also controlled an air defense base near the city’s international airport, a security official said.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
Expanding the tension to neighboring Egypt, the Dawn of Libya militia accused Cairo and United Arab Emirates of being behind mysterious airstrikes on its posts in Tripoli, a claim that Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi rebuffed Sunday.
El-Sissi said his armed forces have not carried out any military operations outside Egypt “so far.” Egypt is hosting a conference with Libya’s neighbors Monday.