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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

At least 20 dead as clashes shut airport in Libyan capital 

Men loyal to militia leader Bashir 'The Cow' engaged in fierce battle with anti-terrorism unit

A man walks inside Mitiga airport the day after militiamen attacked it in an attempt to free colleagues held at a jail there. The area was evacuated when the clashes erupted and roads to the facility were closed. Mahmud Turkia / AFP
A man walks inside Mitiga airport the day after militiamen attacked it in an attempt to free colleagues held at a jail there. The area was evacuated when the clashes erupted and roads to the facility were closed. Mahmud Turkia / AFP

Twenty people were killed and sixty wounded when fierce clashes broke out in the Libyan capital Tripoli, shutting the airport, and damaging planes during what the government said was a failed attempt to spring militants from a nearby prison.

The attack on Monday triggered the heaviest fighting in Tripoli for months, undercutting claims by the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) to have largely stabilised the city as well as undermining the GNA's efforts to persuade diplomatic missions to return there.

The GNA said the attack had "endangered the lives of passengers, affected aviation safety and terrorised residents".

"This assault was aimed at freeing terrorists from Daesh (ISIL) and Al Qaeda and other organisations," it said in a statement.

Automatic gunfire and artillery rounds could be heard from the city centre early in the day and authorities at Mitiga airport, which operates all civilian air traffic to and from the capital, said flights had been suspended until further notice.

By late afternoon the airport was empty and clashes had largely died down, though pilots flew several aircraft across the capital to the international airport - closed to commercial flights since 2014 due to damage from earlier fighting - in an effort to protect them.

One Airbus A319 operated by Afriqiyah Airways was reportedly in a hangar at Mitiga with a hole in its roof from artillery fire.

At least four other aircraft suffered damage from gunfire, including two jets operated by Libyan Wings and two Buraq Air Boeing 737s. The airline said it was preparing to fly out of the country for maintenance.

The fighting pitted the Special Deterrence Force (Rada), one of Tripoli's most powerful armed groups, against a rival faction based in the city's Tajoura neighbourhood.

Rada acts as an anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit and controls Mitiga airport and a large prison next to it. It is aligned with the GNA and is occasionally targeted by rivals whose members it has arrested.

Rada said the airport had been attacked by men loyal to a militia leader known as Bashir "The Cow" and others it had been seeking to arrest.

The attack had been repelled, and an operation to secure the area was ongoing.

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Read more:

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