The control tower and 20 aircraft have been damaged by shelling at Libya’s main airport in Tripoli as fighting continued there for a fourth day.
“It’s a disaster for the country at large,” says Dirk Vandewalle, an expert on Libya at Dartmouth College.
Since the revolution that deposed longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, the central government has relied on — and financially supported — militias to help fill the power vacuum.
Now, divisions between those militia groups are becoming more apparent. Islamists — who felt shut out by parliamentary elections last month that were marred by fraud — have attacked the more secular Zintan militia, which controls the airport.
“The whole battle over the airport really started because of this larger infighting,” Vandewalle says.
The Chinese news agency Xinhua is reporting that the death toll at the airport is close to 30. Fighting has also been intense in recent days in Benghazi, the major city in the east.
Last week, the United Nations pulled most of its staff out of the country. It withdrew remaining personnel on Monday.
“We are deeply concerned about the level of violence in Libya,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at a news conference in Vienna on Tuesday. “It is dangerous and it must stop. We are working very, very hard through our special envoys to find the political cohesion that can bring people together to create stronger capacity in the government of Libya so that this violence can end.”
Since its 2011 bombing campaign, the U.S. has not played a strong military role in the country — in part, at Libya’s insistence.
But the chaos has led some Libyan officials to raise the possibility of military assistance from other countries.
“This may very well be a turning point,” says Vandewalle, the author of A History of Modern Libya. “It’s not yet clear whether any international force would come from the U.N. or the Europeans.”
In the meantime, Libya is doing what it can to keep the destruction at the airport from completely cutting off the flow of international goods and passenger travel.
“Ministry of Transport spokesman Tarek Arwa said Libyan carriers had started operating flights to Dubai and Istanbul to bring back citizens stranded abroad, operating out of Misrata and a smaller airport in Tripoli,” Reuters reports. “Smaller airports in Zuwara and Ghadames in the west would be upgraded to serve international destinations to offset the closure of Tripoli’s main airport, he said, without giving a timeframe.”
Update at 10:06 p.m. ET. Air Controllers Go On Strike:
Protesting the shelling of the airport, air controllers in western Libya have gone on strike, Reuters reports:
“The air controllers refused to go to work at the control tower in Tripoli, which regulates traffic for all of western Libya, a spokesman for the transport ministry said.”
The western Misrata airport, which had been closed after the attack, was reopened on Wednesday. But, Reuters says, “it will have to close again due to the strike because Tripoli air controllers are also responsible for Misrata.”