CAIRO (AP) — Heavy gunfire between warring militias prevented firefighters from battling a massive inferno in Libya's capital Tuesday, despite calls for a cease-fire to end the worst violence in the capital since the country's 2011 civil war.
The blaze engulfing oil depots started earlier in the crossfire of militias fighting over Tripoli's international airport, a weekslong battle between rivals mirroring the violence that's plagued Libya since the downfall of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. In the eastern city of Benghazi, Islamist-led militias said they also seized bases of a renegade general fighting against them Tuesday as a jet fighter crashed.
The violence has impeded the country's democratic transition and its escalation is the biggest challenge facing Libya's newly elected 200-member parliament, which will take office in August.
Earlier this month, a militia composed of fighters from the western city of Misrata backed by others stationed in the capital carried a surprise attack on the airport, held for the last three years by a militia from the mountain town of Zintan.
The fighting forced authorities to shut down the airport after it was devastated in shelling. The Health Ministry said that 97 people have been killed and more than 400 have been wounded in the fighting.
The violence prompted many diplomats and foreigners to flee the country, including the U.S. ambassador in Libya and United Nations staff. A Spanish military plane also evacuated 60 people from Libya, the Spanish Foreign Ministry said in a statement Tuesday. The Spanish ambassador will remain in Tripoli with a reduced staff.
A cease-fire deal over the airport fighting mediated by Tripoli's City Council fell apart hours after they declared it late Monday, leaving council members pleading with the militias to withdraw from at least a 3-kilometer (1.86 mile) radius to allow firefighters to fight the blaze. The government ordered firefighters to withdraw amid new clashes.
Gunfire struck a fourth oil tank Tuesday, but it didn't catch on fire, said Samir Kamal, a senior official with Libya's state-run oil company.
Kamal said up to 80 million liters (21 million gallons) of oil and liquid natural gas are in the area, as well as gas cylinders used for cooking.
"We are afraid that if fire sweeps the whole area ... (there will be) huge explosions that can impact lives of residents living in a 5-kilometer (3.11- mile) radius of the tanks," he said.
The fighting in Tripoli comes as the eastern city of Benghazi has seen monthslong battles between Islamist-led militias and forces allied with renegade Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who has launched a campaign aimed at crushing Islamist extremists.
On Tuesday, Islamist-led militias in the eastern city of Benghazi claimed to have taken control of one of the main barracks of the Special Force, which is allied with Hifter. On its official Facebook page, the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries posted pictures of bulldozers knocking down barracks walls. In a second picture, masked gunmen posed in front of a demolished tower identified as being inside the barracks.
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