MISURATA, Libya — A renegade militia seeking to storm its way into Libya’s capital battled for control of the international airport Saturday in a showdown that threatened to spill into bloody urban combat in the streets of Tripoli.
Fighters loyal to warlord Khalifa Hifter said they had overrun the airport, on the southern edge of the city. But forces for Libya’s U.N.-backed government mounted a counterattack — aided by reinforcements flowing into the city — and it was unclear which side held the airfield by nightfall.
The airport has been closed since it suffered widespread damage during battles between rival groups in 2014. But it would be a symbolic blow to the government if the site fell to Hifter, who could use it as a key staging ground for further advances.
Hifter’s militia is aligned with a separate administration based in eastern Libya. The country, rich in oil and gas reserves, has been split into rival regions for years as the United Nations and others try to hammer out a peace deal and set a road map for elections.
Hifter’s offensive could usher in the most significant escalation of violence since the toppling of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011. Hifter was a general in Gaddafi’s army, but he defected and spent years living in Northern Virginia. He returned to Libya to take part in the revolution against Gaddafi’s rule.
Hundreds of truckloads of fighters from different militias left the city of Misurata on Saturday, heading to Tripoli to help fend off Hifter’s forces, said militia sources and residents of Misurata, about 120 miles east of the capital.
Many Misurata residents — and the city’s militias — despise Hifter and view him as another dictator in the making. Militias from other pro-government cities such as Zintan also moved into Tripoli, according to photos posted on social media.
In Misurata, a radio station sent out a rallying cry to listeners: “Everyone who owns a gun please go to Tripoli right away to fight for your country against Hifter.”
Fayez Sarraj, chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, said Hifter rejected concessions offered “to avoid bloodshed.”
“We were stabbed in the back,” he said in televised comments, the Associated Press reported.
Tripoli is a city accustomed to eruptions of militia violence. In some neighborhoods, life remained typical Saturday, with people shopping and going to work or school, said residents reached by phone.
“The city is normal,” said Jamal Mustafa, 35, an employee at a Libyan overseas investment firm. “People are shopping and going out and doing their routines.”
But in neighborhoods closer to the fighting, residents were preparing for the worst. Many stayed inside their homes as heavily armed militia vehicles steadily drove through to the front line.
Jamal Ramadan, 42, whose house is less than three miles from the old airport, decided to flee.
“We could hear heavy shelling and gunshots,” said the taxi driver and father of three children, ages 3 to 6. “My wife told me she was to afraid to stay. So we got a few clothes and left. We are not going to gamble our lives on this.”
They drove about 90 miles to stay with his wife’s relatives.
“We don’t want Hifter to come,” said Mustafa. “Anyone who wants to rule the country like Gaddafi is unacceptable.”
Human Rights Watch on Saturday raised concerns about possible abuses if fighting escalated inside the capital. Activists accuse Hifter’s fighters of committing numerous human rights violations, including summary executions, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and arbitrary detentions.
Pro-government militias also have a track record of abuses against civilians, the watchdog group said.
“Whenever rival armed forces clash in Libyan cities, it’s civilians who suffer the most,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the group’s Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement. “All sides need to abide by the laws and minimize civilian harm.”
Earlier Saturday, government warplanes targeted Hifter’s militiamen in attempts to stop their push toward Tripoli. The planes bombed positions of his self-described Libyan National Army south of Tripoli, prompting the warlord to declare that his forces would shoot down any aircraft flying over western Libya, local media reported. Tripoli residents on social media described hearing fighter jets passing over the city.
Saturday’s aerial assault came a day after Hifter’s forces were stopped from advancing in Tripoli at a strategic checkpoint and about 100 of his fighters were captured by pro-government militias, local media reports said.
But by Saturday, Hifter’s forces appeared to have regrouped. Their media office said on its Facebook page that they had not only seized control of the airport but also had captured another enclave, Wadi el-Rabeia, south of the capital.
There was no immediate response from the Tripoli government nor the militias that back it.
On Thursday, Hifter ordered his forces to seize control of Tripoli following their takeover of Gharyan, a town about 60 miles south of the capital. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres personally intervened in a bid to stop the fighting but failed Friday to persuade Hifter to halt his offensive.
Hifter’s attempted power grab also risked setting off a fresh wave of people heading toward Libya’s borders or attempting to reach Europe over dangerous sea routes in the Mediterranean. Fearing a spillover of refugees, neighboring Tunisia has tightened control over its border.
Also of concern is that a power vacuum and more insecurity could allow an Islamic State affiliate that once ruled the city of Sirte to regroup.
The United Nations, the United States and other governments, including France and the United Arab Emirates, which supports Hifter, have all demanded that he pull back his forces. On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for restraint from all sides at a news conference in Cairo.
Any escalation in fighting threatens to torpedo a U.N.-sponsored reconciliation conference to forge a path forward for elections, scheduled for next weekend.
But Saturday, Ghassan Salamé, the U.N. special envoy to Libya, said the conference would go forward as planned, declaring that it was a year in the making and that the world body would not quickly give up its political work.
After meeting with the Tripoli government’s president, Sarraj, Salamé said in a tweet, “I want to reassure the Libyans that the UN will not leave them by themselves & will stay in Libya, working toward a political solution, silencing the guns & a peaceful political understanding btwn the various parties.”
Raghavan reported from Cairo.