A FIRE at the oil depot for the airport in Libya’s capital raged out of control yesterday after being hit in the crossfire of warring militias battling for control of the airfield.
Libya’s interim government said in a statement that the fire could trigger a “humanitarian and environmental disaster” in Tripoli. It also appealed for “international help” to extinguish the inferno.
The blaze, which began on Sunday night after what was thought to have been a rocket hit a storage tank, had spread to a second depot by yesterday afternoon, the government said.
In its statement, the government appealed for a ceasefire “as the situation has become very grave”.
Libyan TV stations called on residents to evacuate areas within a three-mile radius of the airport. Images were posted online of black smoke billowing over the Tripoli skyline.
The battle for control of the airport began two weeks ago when Islamist-led militias – mostly from the western city of Misrata – launched a surprise assault on the airport, which has been under control of a rival militia from the town of Zintan.
The country’s health ministry said on Sunday that the fighting has so far killed 79 people and wounded more than 400.
Mohammed al-Harari, spokesman for the Libyan National Oil Company, said the oil depot that was set on fire yesterday has a capacity of 1.6 million gallons, adding that if the fire was not brought under control, it could ignite nearby liquid gas stores.
Foreign governments have urged their nationals to leave Libya and have pulled diplomats out after two weeks of clashes among rival factions killed nearly 160 people in Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi.
The Netherlands, the Philippines and Austria yesterday prepared to evacuate diplomatic staff. The United States, United Nations and Turkey have already shut down embassy operations after the worst violence since the 2011 uprising against Muammar al-Gaddafi.
On Sunday, the UK Foreign Office called on all Britons to leave Libya immediately because of growing instability in the country. It is now advising against all travel to Libya because of the “greater intensity of fighting” and the likelihood of attacks on foreigners. There are believed to be between 100 and 300 Britons in Libya at present.
Two rival brigades of former rebels fighting for control of Tripoli International Airport have pounded each other’s positions with Grad rockets, artillery fire and cannon for two weeks, turning the south of the capital into a battlefield.
In the three messy years since the fall of Gaddafi, Libya’s fragile government and fledging army have been unable to control heavily armed former anti-Gaddafi fighters, who have refused to hand over weapons and continue to rule the streets.
Libya has appealed for international help. Western nations fear chaos spilling across borders with arms smugglers and militants already profiting from the turmoil.
Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has repeatedly warned about militants capitalising on Libya’s chaos to set up bases along the border between the two countries.
US secretary of state John Kerry said the “free-wheeling militia violence” had been a real risk for American diplomats on the ground, and called for an end to the violence.
Four Americans, including US ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed by militants in Benghazi in September 2012.