Gun battles between the two leading armed groups in Tripoli killed two people and forced the closure of the Libyan capital’s only civilian airport, officials said on Tuesday.
Libya has seen more than a decade of stop-start conflict since the 2011 NATO-backed revolt that toppled strongman Moamer Kadhafi, with a myriad of militias forming opposing alliances backed by foreign powers.
A period of relative stability had led the United Nations to express hope for delayed elections to take place this year, and the latest fighting triggered international calls for calm.
The clashes between the influential 444 Brigade and the Al-Radaa, or Special Deterrence Force, erupted on Monday night and carried over into Tuesday, an interior ministry official said.
“Tensions arose” soon after it was announced “the Al-Radaa Force had arrested the head of the 444 Brigade, without explaining whether this was on judicial orders or for other reasons,” the official said.
In May, the two sides had clashed for hours in Tripoli, also after the arrest of a 444 Brigade member.
Both groups are aligned with the divided country’s UN-backed government of Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah in Tripoli.
So far, two people have been killed and more than 30 wounded in the violence, a hospital source told AFP, as the fighting showed no signs of abating.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya said in a statement it was “following with concern” the security deterioration in the Libyan capital and its impact on civilians.
“All parties must preserve the security gains achieved in recent years and address differences through dialogue,” UNSMIL said.
The embassies of the United States, United Kingdom, France, and the European Union echoed the UN call for de-escalation.
Political and military officials on Tuesday attempted mediation but failed to stop the fighting, which could be heard in the city’s heavily populated south, where many clinics and hospitals are based.
Libya’s Red Crescent and emergency responders rescued dozens of families from the combat zones.
Even far from the fighting, the city’s normally traffic-clogged streets were almost empty.
Images shared on social media late Monday showed armored vehicles and armed pickup vans in the east and south of Tripoli after the arrest of 444 Brigade commander Mahmud Hamza at Mitiga airport, in an area under Al-Radaa’s control.
The fighting forced “the closure of roads around Mitiga airport,” according to the official.
Flights were diverted to Misrata about 180 kilometers (110 miles) to the east, and planes that had been parked on the tarmac were moved away.
Plumes of smoke were seen in the capital, where Tripoli University announced the suspension of classes and the health ministry called for blood donations.
The 444 Brigade is affiliated with Libya’s defense ministry and is reputed to be the North African country’s most disciplined. It controls the southern suburbs of Tripoli, and other areas.
The Al-Radaa Force, commanded by Abdel Rauf Karah, is a powerful ultra-conservative militia that acts as Tripoli’s police force.
It positions itself as independent of the interior and defense ministries, and controls central and eastern Tripoli, Mitiga air base, the civilian airport, and a prison.
Libya is split between Dbeibah’s UN-backed government in the west and another in the east backed by military strongman Khalifa Haftar.
In August last year, 32 people were killed and 159 wounded in Tripoli when groups supporting the Haftar-backed government fought with Dbeibah’s forces.
Elections in Libya had been due in December 2021 but disputes, including who could stand in the polls, resulted in their suspension indefinitely, although the UN has been working to end sticking points.