TRIPOLI (Reuters) -Two powerful armed factions battled in Libya’s capital on Tuesday in the city’s worst violence this year, but the deadly clashes calmed after one side released a commander whose detention had triggered the fighting.
A Tripoli health agency said 27 people were killed and more than 100 injured in the violence, without saying if the figure included both combatants and civilians.
The Special Deterrence Force and the 444 Brigade are two of the strongest military forces in Tripoli and their fighting from late on Monday rocked districts across the capital.
Dark smoke hung over parts of the city for much of Tuesday and the sound of heavy weapons rattled through the streets as fighting erupted in different suburbs.
Both factions had backed the interim Government of National Unity (GNU) during brief battles last year and their sudden bout of fighting shattered months of relative calm in Tripoli, underscoring the risks in a conflict that remains unresolved.
Libya has had little peace or security since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising and it split in 2014 between warring eastern and western factions.
An assault by eastern forces on Tripoli, in the west, collapsed in 2020 leading to a ceasefire that has halted most major warfare. Turkey, which backed the Tripoli government, maintained a military presence in Libya.
However, there has been little progress towards a lasting political solution to the conflict and on the ground armed factions that have gained official status and financing continue to wield power.
Last year factions backing a rival government declared by the eastern-based parliament launched a doomed attempt to oust Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, head of the interim unity government, leading to a day of heavy clashes in Tripoli.
Sporadic fighting has also this year rocked the city of Zawiya, west of the capital.
The clashes began late on Monday after the Special Deterrence Force, which controls Tripoli’s main Mitiga airport, detained 444 Brigade commander Mahmoud Hamza as he attempted to travel and continued until Tuesday evening.
The Special Deterrence Force has been one of Tripoli’s main armed factions for years, holding Mitiga and the surrounding coastal area, including a stretch of the main road to the east.
The 444 Brigade controls large swaths of the capital and areas south of Tripoli. Hamza, a former officer in the Special Deterrence Force, has previously been a key figure in mediating an end to tension between other armed factions.
Another significant Tripoli armed faction, the Stabilisation Support Apparatus, had fighters and vehicles out on the street in areas it controls, but was not involved in the clashes, a Reuters witness said.
The clashes paused after an agreement for the Special Deterrence Force to hand Hamza to the Stabilisation Support Apparatus and for fighters to return to their bases, city elders who negotiated the deal announced on television.
A resident of the Tarik Shok area of southern Tripoli described going to bed on Monday with the sound of fighting and waking up on Tuesday to find it had gotten worse.
“We can hear heavy gunfire since early morning. My family lives in the Khalat Furjan area about 7 km (4 miles) away and they also hear clashes,” he said.
Some of the fighting was around Mitiga airport, residents said. Flights were diverted from the airport to Misrata, a city about 180 km (110 miles) east of Tripoli, airlines and airport sources said.
A Turkish defence ministry official said on Tuesday afternoon that “the situation calmed down” in Tripoli and there were no problems regarding the security of Turkish troops. Mitiga hosts a Turkish military presence, diplomats say.
(Reporting by Reuters Libya newsroom; Writing by Angus McDowallEditing by Alison Williams, Jonathan Oatis and Matthew Lewis)