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Thousands flee to Tunisia to escape Libya fighting

Thousands flee to Tunisia to escape Libya fighting

The biggest influx since Libya's 2011 civil war in a sign of the spiraling turmoil as rival militias battle over control of the airport in the capital Tripoli.

Tunis: Up to 6,000 people a day have fled Libya into neighboring Tunisia this week, the Tunisian foreign minister has said, the biggest influx since Libya's 2011 civil war in a sign of the spiraling turmoil as rival militias battle over control of the airport in the capital Tripoli.

The weeks-long fighting is the worst violence seen in the Libyan capital since the war. Nearly 100 people have been killed, 400 others wounded, and much of the airport has been destroyed.

A giant fire has been raging the past three days after shelling hit airport oil depots, forcing nearby residents to evacuate, with firefighters largely unable to put it down because of clashes.

Many diplomats, including the US ambassador, have pulled out of the country. With the interim government paralysed, the fighting threatens the planned opening session of the newly elected parliament on Aug 4.

The violence is the latest chaos in a country where the central government, military and security forces have had no control since the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in the 2011 civil war.

Instead, rival militias have filled the void, all with varying loyalties to local commanders, some with Islamist ideologies, while on the political front Islamist politicians and their opponents have wrangled for control of the government.

Tunisian Foreign Minister Monji Hamdi did not give a full figure for the number of Libyans who have entered the country in recent days, but said they were coming at a rate of 5,000 to 6,000 a day and that the rate was increasing.

He said Tunisia cannot absorb large numbers of refugees and warned his government could close the border.

"Our absolute priority is the security and stability of Tunisia and we will close the border if necessary," he told reporters in Tunis.

In the Tripoli fighting, Islamist-led militias mainly from the city of Misrata are trying to wrest control of the airport from a rival militia, originally from the mountain town of Zintan.

As the airport fighting has raged, deadly clashes continued non-stop in the eastern city of Benghazi, where Islamic militants handed a defeat to a renegade army general, Khalifa Hifter, who for months has been waging a campaign to stamp out militants.

first published:July 31, 2014, 11:10 IST