Libyan capital's airport closes after rocket attack

Tripoli has been at the center of a battle for influence between armed groups with shifting allegiances since Qaddafi was overthrown and killed. (File/AFP)
Updated 12 September 2018

Libyan capital's airport closes after rocket attack

  • There was no immediate claim of responsibility after at least three rockets hit the perimeter of Mitiga International Airport
  • Mitiga airport had only reopened on Friday after it was forced to close for a week because of deadly clashes between rival militias in and around Tripoli

TRIPOLI: The Libyan capital’s only working airport has closed after coming under rocket fire just days after reopening following a UN-backed cease-fire between rival armed groups vying for influence in the country.

The Tuesday night attack underscored the fragility of the latest peace push in Libya, which has been beset by turmoil since the fall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

Several rockets hit the perimeter of Mitiga International Airport on the eastern outskirts of Tripoli without causing any casualties.

Flights were diverted to Misrata, some 200 kilometers  east of the capital, the civil aviation authority said.

Mitiga airport had only reopened on Friday after it was forced to close for a week because of deadly clashes between rival militias in and around Tripoli.

The fighting has killed at least 63 people and wounded 159 others — mostly civilians — since August 27, dousing hopes of elections being held this year.

The UN brokered cease-fire announced on Sept. 4 has largely been respected but witnesses reported brief clashes in the south of the capital on Tuesday night.

That deal includes “radical measures” to restore security in the capital which should be applied from Wednesday, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said on Tuesday evening.

On Wednesday, UNSMIL said on Twitter that a “special meeting” was taking place on security arrangements for Tripoli.

It was attended by the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez Al-Sarraj, as well as military commanders from across western Libya and UN envoy Ghassan Salame.

UNSMIL said the meeting was tackling “how best to consolidate the ... cease-fire agreement and the establishment of a monitoring and verification committee.”

It also said the meeting was focusing on “the formation of a committee on security arrangements.”

Thousands of families have fled the violence to nearby towns or have had to seek shelter in other districts of Tripoli, authorities have said.

Several rockets had already struck near the airport last month, forcing authorities to divert all flights to Misrata on that occasion too.

A UN-brokered agreement signed in Morocco in December 2015 establishing the GNA brought hopes of an easing of the chaos that followed Libya’s 2011 revolution.

But divisions remain between the GNA and rivals including military commander Khalifa Haftar, who is based in the east and refuses to recognize the administration’s authority.

Tripoli has been at the center of a battle for influence between armed groups with shifting allegiances since Qaddafi was overthrown and killed.

The UN Panel of Experts on Libya said in a letter to the Security Council on Sept. 5 that armed groups have “increased their influence over Libyan State institutions, promoting their own political and economic interests.”

“The use of violence to take control of State infrastructure and institutions — and threats and attacks against public servants — are widespread across the country and are particularly noticeable in Tripoli,” it said.

Mitiga airport, a former military air base, has been a civilian airport since Tripoli’s main international airport was badly damaged in fighting between rival militias in 2014.

Since then only Libyan airlines have operated in the country, running internal flights and regular connections to a handful of nations, including Tunisia and Turkey.

Libyan airlines are banned from European Union airspace for “security reasons.”

On Wednesday, France’s ambassador to the UN Francois Delattre said his country believes it “essential” that presidential and legislative elections take place in Libya on Dec. 10, in line with a timetable agreed in May.

Extremist groups and people traffickers have taken advantage of the chaos to gain a foothold in Libya.

The Daesh group claimed responsibility on Tuesday for a suicide attack a day earlier against the headquarters of Libya’s National Oil Corporation which killed two employees.

On Wednesday, the US Treasury Department slapped sanctions on the leader of a militia in Libya for attacks on the country's oil facilities.

The US said Ibrahim Jadhran’s attacks "robbed the Libyan people of billions of dollars in oil revenue."

Wednesday's action is part of a push to take forceful action against "rogue criminals and militia forces who undermine peace and security."

Ankara-backed groups launch offensive against criminal gang in Afrin

A Syrian girl looks on in Afrin. In January, Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch to clear the region of the YPG militants, which it sees as a terror group. (AFP)
Updated 50 sec ago

Ankara-backed groups launch offensive against criminal gang in Afrin

  • “Many of the Syrian groups in Afrin are not capable of stopping the YPG-led insurgency there, and are divided among themselves

ANKARA: Turkey announced a curfew in Syria’s northern city of Afrin as part of a wide-ranging operation against a rebel faction, the Al-Sharqiyyah Martyrs Gathering, and its allies who have been accused of crimes including kidnapping civilians, robbery, extrajudicial executions and looting.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the UK-based monitoring group, announced: “Turkish forces and the factions closed the roads leading to Afrin city and surrounded several neighborhoods of the city, while the heaviest clashes are concentrated in the middle of Afrin city in Al-Villat Street.”
The Observatory said at least 25 men were killed in clashes.
The operation was reportedly conducted under the supervision of the Turkish army, which provided logistic support.
The Observatory also told of a sweeping search campaign by the Turkish special task forces in Afrin, along with information about “preparations for raiding the headquarters of Al-Sharqiyyah Gathering, most of whose fighters are descended from Deir Ezzor province, which handed over its weapons days ago after its objection to the Turkish orders.”
Al Sharqiyyah headquarters are in the Al-Filat and Al-Mahmoudiya areas, and the Al-Nayrouz crossroads in Afrin.
Turkey launched Operation Olive Branch in January this year and concluded it in April with the support of the Free Syrian Army to clear the region of Syrian Kurdish YPG militants, which it sees as a terror group.
In the wake of Operation Olive Branch, thousands of people are thought to be returning to the city, while trade and economic activities, as well as educational and health services, have begun to return to normal under the supervision of a 1,700-strong police force which has been trained in Turkey to patrol the streets.
Therefore, maintaining order and security by rooting out lawlessness in a city whose population has reached 200,000 from 50,000 is crucially important for Ankara to prove its success.
Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said Turkey may be a victim of its own success in Afrin.
“Turkey’s rapid conquest of Afrin was the result of the Turkish military’s competence, not because Turkey’s Syrian partner forces were effective on their own,” he told Arab News.
According to Heras, the Syrian partner force that Turkey mobilized to run Afrin is divided among different groups, and many of these groups act with a mercenary mentality because they stay in Afrin for the money that Turkey gives them.
“Many of the Syrian groups in Afrin are not capable of stopping the YPG-led insurgency there, and are divided among themselves about which group will profit the most from their partnership with Turkey,” he noted.
With partners like this, Heras thinks that the Turkish military will have to take a different approach, which is to have a firmer handle on Afrin.
“This in many ways defeats the purpose of having Syrian partner forces on the ground, because they are supposed to do most of the work, not create problems that makes it more painful for Turkey to control Afrin,” he said.
The Observatory claims that Turkey’s ongoing operation against the groups in Afrin has been supported by the Hamza Division, the Sultan Murad Division, the Al-Sham Corps and the 3rd Corps.
For some people the operation is against the irregularities and the corruption of Al-Sharqiyyah Martyrs Gathering, composed of more than 800 members. Some local reports claim that the real motivation behind the Turkish operation is linked to the fact that this group is disobeying Ankara’s orders not to fight against the regime forces.
For this narrative, this operation was launched for keeping Turkish proxies on the ground under control.
Last July, Al-Sharqiyyah Martyrs Gathering, led by its commander named “Abu Khula,” incurred Turkey’s anger for launching an unauthorized attack on the Syrian Arab Army in the village of Tadef in the northern Aleppo countryside and just south of the Turkish-held city of Al-Bab. The attack was a violation of the Russian-Turkish-Iranian de-escalation agreement in northern Syria.
Mete Sohtaoglu, an independent researcher on the Middle East, said his local sources confirmed around 40 deaths after an intense offensive on Sunday.
“The remaining fighters of Al-Sharqiyyah will lay down arms and will return to Idlib with their families,” he told Arab News. “Turkey is making sure the peace in Afrin is not compromised.
“Such operations have been conducted occasionally in the past, but this time the final goal was to dissolve this group. I assume that all rebel groups in Afrin will be liquefied soon and brought under the auspices of the new Syrian National Army umbrella group,” Sohtaoglu said.
Although Al-Sharqiyyah announced in late October that it was disbanding voluntarily, it has never implemented this decision and has continued to carry out insubordination and crimes.
This operation is considered the first all-out campaign waged by pro-Ankara rebel groups against another faction in the city.
The security operation is not restricted to Afrin, but also covers other areas of the Euphrates Shield in the rebel-held territory of eastern Aleppo that was captured by Turkish-backed groups.