Thousands flee to Tunisia to escape Libya fighting

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Up to 6,000 people a day have fled Libya into neighboring Tunisia this week, the Tunisian foreign minister said Wednesday, 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 U.S. ambassador, have pulled out of the country. With the interim government paralyzed, 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. The militants this week overran a series of army bases held by the general's loyalists. On Wednesday, the Red Crescent said it retrieved 35 bodies from one of the bases, bringing the toll from the week to nearly 70 dead.

The violence comes after a parliament election in which Islamist politicians, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, are believed to have lost their political dominance — though the final alignments in the body are not clear because all candidates ran as independents, meaning their party loyalties are unclear.

The head of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, Mohammed Sawan, gave a strong show of support for the Islamist militias who attacked the airport in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. He called the assault a "legitimate" response to the campaign by Hifter to crush Islamists.

Sawan, of the Justice and Construction Party, said the attempt to take the airport was prompted by fear that Hifter will move his campaign to Tripoli, especially after the militias running the airport declared their backing for the general.

He said the armed group that launched attack on militias controlling the airport had been mandated by the outgoing speaker of parliament — a pro-Islamist politician — to keep security in the capital.

"This makes it legitimate," he said, adding that the assault aims to "bring the airport under state control."

Many of the militias have been given ostensive government mandates to handle security duties. Islamists' opponents accuse the Islamists of using militias sympathetic to them to try to consolidate their grip over the country after losing elections. Islamists, in turn, accuse their opponents of using militias in their camp to crush democracy over the past year when the parliament was dominated by Islamist bloc.

Sawan accused Hifter and his allies of liberal lawmakers, government officials and army units — of seeing to "reproduce the Gadhafi regime."

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Michael reported from Cairo.