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Violence Flares In Libya, Leaving Main Airport In Ruins


Now while Secretary Kerry is in Egypt, the country next door is in turmoil. Libya is a place where warring militias spent the last week locked in battle for control of the main international airport in the capital, Tripoli. That fighting has left dozens dead and forced the closing of the main air link into the country. Reporter Chris Steven is a correspondent for The Guardian. He's on the line from Tripoli. Welcome to the program, sir.

CHRIS STEVEN: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: So what has this fighting looked like?

STEVEN: It's quite heavy, really. There was a terrific day of bombardment at the airport. Between the Misrata militia trying to take the airport and now militias in Zintan trying to defend it. And this fighting has spilled out right across western Tripoli.

INSKEEP: Now you said militias from Misrata and Zintan - I suppose we should explain those are other cities outside of Tripoli and each is a kind of power center, right? They're local militia commanders, local politicians who are in control of their areas and they're fighting over this airport. Is that right?

STEVEN: That's right. Zintan is southwest of Tripoli and Misrata is east of Tripoli. And these are the two towns that really fought the hardest in the revolution of 2011. They contributed the most troops. But since that revolution, they're units have basically come to close with each other in the capital. And they're each fighting each other for bits of real estate with no real sort of government forces intervening between them.

INSKEEP: Well, that was the next question on my mind. Is the government anywhere in this equation?

STEVEN: The government's sort of nowhere. They have a small army and quite a large police force. But these forces aren't present. They don't want to get involved. So the government, instead, has been turning to the United Nations, asking for some sort of intervention to try to ease the situation.

INSKEEP: Now is this a nationwide situation? If you travelled across Libya, from city to city, would you find a different local militia in control in any given city or even any given neighborhood?

STEVEN: Libya is sort of less one country than a series of these militia fiefdoms. Some of these fiefdoms are quite large and end up being a whole tower or a whole area. And if travel around the country, there's different militias are locked into battle with other militias. And it's quite a confusing sort of patchwork. And I suppose the one thing that they all have in common is that it's all sort of chaotic. Each militia will want to have as much power as it can for itself. Sometimes they'll work with other militias, sometimes they won't. But it's certainly very frustrating from a government point of view because the government has very little central control.

INSKEEP: Is there any, kind of, for example, the economy - is trade proceeding from city to city even if there are different lines of authority in different places?

STEVEN: Well, trade is sort of at a standstill - in particular, oil. There has been an oil blockade which is now entering its 12th month. There's a new parliament - The House of Representatives. And once this parliament sits, it may that the blockade does end if the blockading militias judge that parliament give it a better deal. The parliament's due to sit anytime between the end of this week and the beginning of August. But, certainly, the government's hope is that Libya reconnects with democracy and that the various blockaders decide that it's better for them to actually open the oil valve and allow the oil to flow because without it, the country's going bankrupt.

INSKEEP: So let's circle, Chris Steven, back to this airport where the two militias from two different cities have been battling for control. What does it mean for the country if the airport remains closed and remains a war zone?

STEVEN: Well, for the country I think it's another terrible blow. - I mean, psychological and practical. Tripoli Airport is the gateway to (inaudible) bordering, and it's now up in smoking ruins. I mean, you have 21 jets either destroyed or damaged. That's a large part of Libya's commercial fleet. It's worth over a billion dollars. The control tower's smashed. The tarmac's smashed. Buildings smashed. The air state is closed. So really, you've got a situation where, well, no one can get in or out by air. And I think it sends a terrible message abroad to any sort of perspective business people about the state of Libya.

INSKEEP: Chris Steven is a correspondent for Britain's Guardian Newspaper. He is in Tripoli, Libya. Thank you very much.

STEVEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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