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Secretary of State John Kerry, right, joined by Prime Minister of Libya Abdullah al-Thinni speaks to media at the State Department, in Washington, Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, during the US Africa Summit. Nearly 50 African heads of state are gathering in Washington for an unprecedented summit.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press - Ap

Torn by factions, Libya on the brink of civil war

  • Article by: DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
  • New York Times
  • August 24, 2014 - 7:54 PM

The fire is inside the airport!” a militiaman cried, as he fired an anti-aircraft cannon on the back of a pickup toward the runway of Libya’s main international airport. “God is great, the flames are rising!”

“Intensify the shooting,” responded his commander, Salah Badi, an ultraconservative Islamist and former lawmaker from Misrata.

Captured on video by the proud attackers just one month ago, Badi’s assault on Libya’s main international airport has now drawn the country’s fractious militias, tribes and towns into a single national conflagration that threatens to become a prolonged civil war. It has already inflicted grave damage on Libya’s largest cities and on the hopes of a return to stability after the NATO-led ouster of Moammar Gadhafi three years ago.

Those backing Badi say his attack was a pre-emptive blow against an imminent counterrevolution modeled on the military takeover in Egypt and backed by its conservative allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Their opponents, including the militias stocked with former Gadhafi soldiers that controlled the airport, say Badi was merely the spearhead of a hard-line Islamist onslaught resembling the Islamic State and supported by the Islamist-friendly governments of Turkey and Qatar.

The ideological differences are blurry at best: Both sides publicly profess a similar conservative but democratic vision. What is clear is that Libya is being torn apart by an escalating war among its patchwork of rival cities and tribes.

In a broad series of interviews on a five-day trip across the chasm now dividing the country - from the mountain town of Zintan, through Tripoli to the coastal city of Misrata - many Libyans despaired of any resolution.

“We entered this tunnel and we can’t find our way out,” said Ibrahim Omar, a Zintani leader.

Towns and tribes across the country are choosing sides, in places flying the flags of rival factions, sometimes including the black banners of Islamist extremists. Tripoli, the capital and the main prize, has become a battleground. The fighting has destroyed the airport, and on Saturday night Badi’s allies finally captured the remaining rubble, at least for the moment. Constant shelling between rival militias has leveled blocks, emptied neighborhoods and killed hundreds of people.

Motorists wait in lines stretching more than 3 miles at shuttered gas stations, waiting for them to open. Food prices are soaring, uncollected garbage is piling up and bicycles, once unheard-of, are increasingly common.

In Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, the fighting has closed both its airport and seaport, strangling the city.

In an alarming turn for the West, the rush toward war is also lifting the fortunes of the Islamist extremists of Ansar al-Sharia, the militant group involved in the attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi., as other militias have allied with its fighters.

© 2014 Star Tribune