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Libya seeks intl help over huge oil depot fire, warns of 'disaster'

Published time: July 28, 2014 16:27
Edited time: July 29, 2014 14:28

Plumes of smoke rise in the sky after a rocket hit a fuel storage tank near the airport road in Tripoli, during clashes between rival militias July 28, 2014 (Reuters / Ismail Zitouny)

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A massive fire is “out of control” after armed militias fighting for control of Tripoli’s airport blew up an oil storage tank on Sunday night. Libya’s interim government has said it could cause a “humanitarian and environmental disaster.”

Militia groups fighting for control of Tripoli’s airport are thought to have hit an oil storage tank with a rocket on Sunday night, causing a huge blaze which is still raging.

Residents within a five kilometer radius of the fire have begun evacuating their homes.

The battle for control of the airport began two weeks ago, when Islamist led armed groups from the city of Misrata launched a surprise attack. The airport has been under control of a militia from Zintan in the west of Libya.

The renewed fighting around the airport has so-far claimed 79 lives and left 400 people injured, according to the health ministry’s Sunday figures cited by the Associated Press.

Firefighters were drafted in from nearby areas to help tackle the blaze, but had to pull back.

“Firefighters have been trying for hours to put out the blaze but to no avail. Their water reserves finally ran out and they’ve had to leave,” said a spokesman for the Libyan National Oil Company (NCO).

He added that the depot has the capacity to hold six million liters of oil and that a number of liquid gas storage containers were also at risk of igniting if the blaze is not contained.

Meanwhile, the interim government in Libya has called for “international help” and has said the blaze could cause a “humanitarian and environmental disaster.”

A damaged building is pictured after clashes between rival militias, in an area at Alswani road in Tripoli July 28, 2014 (Reuters / Hani Amara)

As the situation in Libya deteriorates, the US evacuated its diplomats from Tripoli to Tunisia on Saturday, and the UN Support Mission in Libya as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross have already withdrawn their staff.

The German Embassy also pulled out their embassy staff on Monday, saying they will be sent back “as soon as the security situation allows.”

The UK has urged all its nationals to leave Libya after a British Embassy convoy was fired at on Sunday, although no one was hurt in the attack. The British Embassy remains open with a reduced staff.

Three years after the US and its NATO allies used air power to help the militants achieve victory over former President Muammar Gaddafi, the country is rapidly descending into chaos.

The recent factional fighting between an array of militant groups in the capital Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi has left dozens of people dead. Political activists have been killed, diplomats forced to flee, while Libyan citizens fear violence on a day-to-day basis.

Daily life has become a grind, as fuel disappears from petrol stations and electricity and water supplies become more and more erratic.

The problem is made worse by a seemingly limitless supply of weapons and ammunition, as much of Gaddafi’s arsenal fell into the hands of militias after the so-called revolution in 2011.