Tripoli is in flames. A large fire that started July 27 during fighting between rival militias on the city's central airport road now engulfs two major fuel tanks and has continued to spread while the body count ticks upward.
Not only are Tripoli's few firefighters, who must brave what is effectively a war zone to do their job, making little progress, but bullets continue to hit the huge storage facility of the Brega Oil and Gas Co. The fires were so large that at their peak they were visible on satellite images.
Aside from the physical danger posed by the fires, the sight of what is Libya's overwhelmingly most important resource billowing into the sky adds to the sting of gasoline prices in the capital, now more than 30 times the standard rate.
The Brega depot is under the control of the most prominent militias from the western city of Zintan. These militias, principally Uthman Mulayqithah's al-Qaqaa and Isam al-Trabulsi's al-Sawaiq, have been fighting Islamist militias from Misrata that first attacked their position at Tripoli airport on July 13. While former Defence Minister Osama al-Juwali is believed to be helping coordinate the Zintani forces, the former parliamentarian Salah Badi is leading the Misratans.
Badi had originally been appointed head of military intelligence by Nuri Abu Sahmain, the Islamist head of the General National Congress, but was rejected by senior military figures. He is now coordinating Libya Shield Forces — a paramilitary group nominally under the control of armed forces Chief of Staff Abdel-Salam al-Obeidi — along with forces from the Interior Ministry-aligned Supreme Security Committee militia.
As Badi and his forces fight through the streets of Tripoli, assassinations in the rest of the country continue unabated. Hasan Kamouka, police chief of the western city of Sabratha, was found assassinated on July 27.
Overall violence in Libya has been high this year, with July by far the worst month for killings. According to Libya Body Count, to date in 2014 at least 650 people have suffered violent deaths, and among those, 348 were killed this month. Dozens were killed this past weekend alone.
In Benghazi, the fighting between Islamists and forces led by Khalifa Hifter, a retired general and former chief of staff for Moammar Gadhafi, is becoming bloodier. Hifter began his campaign in May in response to violence by Islamist militant groups and their open discussions of a purge of senior military officers. He counts multiple influential militia leaders among his allies.
Hifter's forces have also been bolstered by the defections of former air force chief Saqr al-Jaroushi, head of the navy Hassan Abu-Shannaq, and the air defense forces chief Jomaa al-Abani. Hifter has publicly stated that he intends to establish what he calls the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces in Libya.
The fighting on July 27 left dozens of fighters dead, including Ahmed al-Zahawi, the brother of Mohammed Ali al-Zahawi, leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya. Posts on the group's social media accounts indicate that over the weekend Ansar al-Sharia obtained armor and artillery and has begun to use it. As fighting peaked, Zahawi was spotted on the front lines.
Lining up with Hifter's forces in Benghazi are the Saiqa Brigade, under Col. Wanis Bukhamada, and the influential tribal leader Ezzedin Wakwak, who granted Hifter use of the Benina airbase. Against them are three Islamist militias — Ismail al-Sallabi's Februrary 17 Martyrs Brigade, the Rafallah al-Sahati Brigade, led by Mohamad al-Gharabi, and most important, Zahawi's Ansar al-Sharia.
Benghazi has become so dangerous that members of the newly elected House of Representatives, who decided to move the legislature from Tripoli to Benghazi, are planning to relocate the body even farther east, to Tobruk, according to Libya analyst Mohamed Eljarh, who attended meetings of the body.
The international community's response to the Libyan crisis has been limited. Special envoys from the Arab League, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States have called for an immediate cease-fire, and on July 23 British Ambassador Michael Aron met with Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani to discuss the importance of getting the militias to put down their arms.
On July 28, the prime minister's office officially requested international assistance to put out the fires. Officials were hoping for planes to extinguish the flames. This request, like similar requests by the government for help enforcing a cease-fire, will not be granted. No country appears to see itself as having sufficient interest in assisting the government, which has little real authority. In any case, militia forces are equipped with anti-aircraft weaponry and would be none too pleased with foreign intervention of any kind.
Not only is there no appetite for genuine assistance, but the Austrian, Dutch, German, Japanese, Turkish, and US embassies have all closed and evacuated diplomatic staff within the last few days. One European ambassador told Al-Monitor, “We're staying, but we're just trying to find a way out of this mess.”
The Libyan government has formed a team led by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, former head of the National Transitional Council, to negotiate a cease-fire with the militias, but little has been heard from the effort thus far. Meanwhile, the influential embassies are mostly empty, with the notable exceptions of the United Kingdom and France, and the United Nations has withdrawn its mission.
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