Libya Is Literally On Fire

CREDIT: AP Photo/AP video

An airplane on the tarmac of the airport belching black smoke into the air during fighting between the Islamist Misarata brigade and a powerful rival militia, in Tripoli, Libya

A massive oil complex in Libya was set ablaze this weekend due to a stray missile, with the resulting fire quickly raging out of control. The inferno serves as a perfect metaphor for a country in which militants and militias vie with the government for dominance in a system that hasn’t managed to rebuild after years of a dictator’s rule.

For more than two weeks now, rival militias have struggled for control of Tripoli International Airport in Libya’s capital. It was in the midst of that fighting that a tanker containing more than six million liters of petroleum caught fire when a missile one of the groups launched hit it directly, according to Libya’s state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC). Making matters all the worse, the tanker is located near an area that “contains 90 million liters of fuel and cooking gas, hence there is a risk of a huge explosion should the fire spread,” the Wall Street Journal reports an oil official as saying.

“Firefighters have been trying for hours to put out the blaze but to no avail,” said NOC spokesman Mohamed al-Hrari. Those firefighters were only able to reach the blaze after government officials pleaded with the clashing militias to allow the emergency responders through to attempt to combat the fire. “Their water reserves finally ran out and they’ve had to leave,” he continued.

Residents within three miles of the airport and oil depot have been advised to evacuate the area in case the fire can’t be contained. Firefighters from around Tripoli and its neighboring cities and towns have been deployed to combat the fire, but so far to no avail. Should the fire not be stopped and the resulting explosion occur, the NOC warned, the result would be a “potential environmental and humanitarian disaster.”

Al-Hrari added that the only option left was “intervention by air,” leading to the Libyan government reaching out to neighboring countries for support. “The government has requested international assistance and contacted several [foreign] states asking if they were willing to send planes and teams specializing in fire extinguishing,” the NOC said on its Facebook page. One anonymous security official has claimed that the fire is now under control, but still remains burning.

This is the third request for international help from Libya in as many weeks as fighting between militias has intensified. Following the fall of longtime dictator Moammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, the Libyan government’s security forces have been practically non-existent in the turmoil-ridden country, leaving the country to rely on the former rebel groups that banded together to oust Qaddafi for protection. In practice, this has lead to continuing factionalism between the brigades that make up the militias and frequent quarreling with the government. As ThinkProgress previously wrote of the situation in Libya just earlier this month, “political gridlock has paralyzed the interim government, even as warring militias kidnapped the Prime Minister, abducted foreign diplomats, and cut off the oil ports that keep the country’s economy afloat.”

It’s this atmosphere of intensified fighting that lead the United States to quietly evacuate its embassy in Tripoli over the weekend, joining the United Nations, the Red Cross, and several other countries in fleeing the fighting. Due to the fact that the evacuation was occurring overland, with staff crossing over into Tunisia before continuing on, the evacuation was kept mostly under wraps until it was complete. “We are committed to supporting the Libyan people during this challenging time, and are currently exploring options for a permanent return to Tripoli as soon as the security situation on the ground improves,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf said in a statement released on Saturday. “In the interim, staff will operate from Washington and other posts in the region.”


Libyan government officials on Monday said that rather than containing the blaze, a second depot in Tripoli had caught fire. “The situation is very dangerous after a second fire broke out at another petroleum depot,” it said in a statement, warning of a “disaster with unforeseeable consequences.” Adding to the problem, firefighters have been forced to flee the area several times as rockets continue to be launched in the vicinity of the airport.

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