Fuel Tank Blaze Near Tripoli Airport 'Out of Control'

The huge fire from fuel tanks near Tripoli's international airport that has been ignited by rocket attacks is out of control as clashes between rival militias have resumed in the area, the National Oil Company spokesman said on Monday.

"It is out of control. The second tank has been hit and the firefighters have withdrawn from the site as the fighting has resumed in the area," NOC spokesman Mohamed Al-Harrai told Reuters.

Earlier Monday, at least 36 people were killed in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi where Libyan Special Forces and Islamist militants clashed on Saturday night and Sunday morning, medical and security sources said.

The government said more than 150 people have died, many of them civilian, in the capital Tripoli and Benghazi in two weeks of fighting as clashes forced U.S. and foreign diplomats to pull out of the country over the weekend.

Early Monday, the Libyan government appealed for "international help" after several oil storage tanks caught fire amid clashes over the country's international airport in the capital, Tripoli.

◆ Fuel Tanks Hit

Fuel storage tanks that supply Tripoli were hit on Sunday by rockets igniting a huge fire near the international airport, the NOC said.

"It is a tank of 6 million liters of gasoline and it is close to others containing gas and diesel," NOC spokesman Mohamed al-Alharari said. "The firefighters are trying to counter the fire, but if they cannot, a big disaster will happen" he added.

In a statement posted on its website on Monday, the interim government said the fighting between rival militias caused the huge blaze, which could trigger a "humanitarian and environmental disaster."

Libyan TV stations called on residents to evacuate areas near the airport. Social networking sites posted images of billowing black smoke over Tripoli skyline.

Also on Sunday, Egypt and several Western states urged their nationals to leave Libya amid spiralling violence.

Cairo called on "all Egyptian nationals in Tripoli and Benghazi to immediately leave and save themselves from this chaotic internal fighting."

There were an estimated 1.5 million Egyptians in Libya before Qadhafi's ouster. About two-thirds left during the war but many returned in 2012.

In addition to the U.S. and Egypt, Belgium, Malta, Spain and Turkey previously urged their nationals to leave.

In Tripoli, 23 people, all Egyptian workers, were killed when a rocket hit their home on Saturday during fighting between rival militias battling over the city's main airport, the Egyptian state news agency reported.

A video frame grab obtained from a freelance journalist traveling with the Misarata brigade shows an airplane on the tarmac at the airport belching black smoke during fighting between the Islamist Misarata brigade and a powerful rival militia in Tripoli, Lybia. /AP A video frame grab obtained from a freelance journalist traveling with the Misarata brigade shows an airplane on the tarmac at the airport belching black smoke during fighting between the Islamist Misarata brigade and a powerful rival militia in Tripoli, Lybia. /AP

◆ Death Toll Rises

Since the clashes erupted earlier this month, 94 people have died in the capital, and more than 400 have been injured as militias exchanged rocket and artillery fire across southern Tripoli, the health ministry said.

Another 55 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in Benghazi since the clashes have intensified over the last week between regular forces and Islamist militants who are entrenched in the city.

"Most of the victims we have noticed are civilians as the fighters have their own hospitals on the battlefield," a Benghazi medical source told Reuters.

The airport has been closed since July 13 because of the clashes.

In the last two weeks, Libya has descended into its deadliest violence since the 2011 war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi, with the central government unable to impose order.

On Sunday, shelling continued in Tripoli around the international airport that is controlled by militias from the western city of Zintan. More Islamist-leaning rival brigades are trying to force them from the airport, which Zintanis have controlled since the fall of Tripoli.

But clashes were far heavier in Benghazi overnight, where regular army and air force units have joined with a renegade ex-army general who has launched a self-declared campaign to oust Islamist militants from the city.

Libya's Western allies worry the OPEC country is becoming polarised between the two main factions of competing militia brigades and their political allies, whose battle is shaping the country's transition.

◆ Militias Battle

Meanwhile, dramatic footage obtained by The Associated Press on Sunday showed rival Libyan militia violently battling for control of the capital's international airport on Saturday.

A large airplane was destroyed in the violence, the remains of which sat on the tarmac belching black smoke into the air.

The footage was provided to the AP by a freelancer travelling with militia from the city of Misrata, east of Tripoli.

The rival militias have forced a week long closure of petrol stations and government offices.

In recent days, armed men have attacked vehicles carrying money from the Central Bank to local banks, forcing their closure as well.

Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AP and AFP.

VOA News / Jul. 29, 2014 08:34 KST