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Libya airport clashes kill 9, injure dozens

Armed clashes broke out at Libya's international airport in Tripoli early Sunday, leaving nine people dead and 25 others injured, a health ministry official said.

Sources said the fight was between armed Islamist groups and militia from Libya's southwestern city of Zintan. Both sides claimed on their social networking websites that they have taken control of the crucial air hub.

According to a local resident living in the southern part of the capital, intense gunfire was heard throughout the day. Some witnesses said vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft guns were rushing down the nearby roads.

Local media also reported that rocket-propelled grenades hit the runway, thus disrupting both domestic and international flights.

British Airlines, Egypt Air, Tunisair and Turkish Airways have cancelled their flights to and from the airport, while the Libyan Afriqiyah Airways has redirected all flights arriving in Tripoli to Misrata.

The Civil Aviation Authority has suspended all flights to Tripoli for the next three days and will dispatch a team to monitor the situation, suggesting the atmosphere is still volatile.

Local media reported that Islamist militant groups, including the Central Libya Shield, the Marsa Misratan Brigade, Hateen, the 27th Mobile Infantry and the Libyan Revolutionaries Operation Room, surrounded the airport with heavy weapons.

Tripoli International Airport, Libya's busiest airport, has been under control of the secular Zintan militia groups since the 2011 protests that left the country with a political and military power vacuum after Libya's former leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled.

The Islamist militant groups, some affiliated with the government, said their goal was to expel all militias from the capital Tripoli in a militarized operation dubbed "Libya Dawn."

However, the Libyan government issued a statement on Sunday afternoon and condemned the move as "illegitimate."

A Libyan government spokesman said the authorities did not order the militant groups to carry out the operation, but instead called on both sides to show restraint. He added that the government is trying to protect civilians from the clashes.

Libya has witnessed a drastic escalation of violence and political instability since the fall of Gaddafi's government. Libya's weak central government has failed to reign in the former rebels and militias, many of whom now operate with impunity.

[Source: Xinhua, Tripoli, 13Jul14]

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