Libya’s main international airport has been captured by Islamist militants, the fighters and local news networks reported, as the country continued its descent into sectarian conflict and chaos.
The Islamist groups, led by a militia from the western city of Misrata under the umbrella of “Operation Dawn,” said they had captured the airport in Tripoli on Saturday after more than a month of fighting against the liberal Zintan militias, who have been assigned by the government to guard the airport since 2011.
Arabic news networks confirmed the airport had been seized by the Misrata militias, and photos of their fighters celebrating were circulated across social media. At least 90% of the airport’s facilities, including 20 passenger jets, were reported destroyed in the fighting, causing an estimated $2 billion in losses.
Neighboring Egypt is set to host a regional meeting on Monday to discuss the Libyan crisis. The meeting is expected to include foreign ministers from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan and Chad, as well as representatives of the Arab League and the African Union’s convoy to Libya.
Libya’s newly elected parliament issued a statement not long after the airport seizure designating the militant groups involved as terrorist organizations.
“We consider these groups fighting under the names of ‘Operation Dawn’ and ‘Ansar al-Sharia’ as outlaws against the state’s legitimacy. Therefore they are legitimate targets for the Libyan National Army,” the statement read.
The parliament’s announcement highlighted the deep divisions among Libyans since the fall of Moammar Kadafi’s regime in 2011. Also Saturday, the ruling General National Congress, or GNC, unilaterally announced the dissolution of the parliament, which held its first session in the Eastern city of Tobruk earlier in the month.
The parliament was expected to ignore the order.
Members of the Misrata militia have previously called on the GNC to strip the elected parliament of any authority.
The GNC -- the nation’s nominal government -- is dominated by Muslim Brotherhood members who have recently aligned themselves with Islamist fighters in Tripoli and Benghazi, Libya’s second city. The majority of parliamentary seats were won by more liberal representatives.
In Libya’s highly fluid conflict, Operation Dawn was launched by the Islamist militias against the Libyan National Army and troops loyal to a secular rogue army general, Khalifa Haftar.
In an effort to rid Libya of the Islamist militias, Haftar organized Operation Dignity last May in Benghazi. He was later joined by the Libyan Army forces deploying away from the GNC’s authority.
However, his efforts were severely set back when the Islamists of Ansar al-Sharia bombed Benghazi’s largest special forces base and announced the rule of sharia law in the city.
Hundreds were killed in fighting in both Tripoli and Benghazi, and thousands of foreigners were forced to evacuate.
For the first time during the Libyan clashes, air raids were carried out against camps of Islamist groups last week. While Haftar’s forces claimed responsibility for the attacks, a spokesman for Operation Dawn accused both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates of leading the attacks.
On Sunday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah denied any involvement by his country’s forces.
“So far, we have not launched any military operations outside our borders,” Egypt’s state news agency MENA quoted him as saying during a meeting with Egyptian newspaper editors. “No Egyptian jets executed any military acts on Libyan soil; our troops are on our home soil.”
Both Egypt and the UAE have witnessed a major crackdown on Islamists over the past year. Egypt in particular has consistently denied playing any role in Libyan internal affairs.
Special correspondent Juma reported from Benghazi and Hassan from Cairo.