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Militia attacks rivals at main Libya airport

TRIPOLI--Deadly clashes raged Sunday around Libya's main international airport, closing in down, as Islamist militia attacked liberal rivals in their Tripoli bastion, in an intensifying power struggle.

Exchanges of fire with heavy weapons forced the closure of Tripoli airport, as foreign ministers from the North African nation's neighbors were to meet later in Tunisia to consider how to aid chaos-riddled Libya.

A health ministry spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said at least six people were killed and 25 wounded in the clashes.

It was not immediately known if civilians were among the casualties.

The assault on the Zintan group by rival Islamist militants also came after the U.N. pulled staff from Libya citing security reasons, and as the United States warned of further escalation.

An airport official said “rockets struck inside the airport perimeter around 6 am (0400 GMT),” followed by heavy clashes between the Zintan militia which controls the airport and rival gunmen.

Loud explosions and heavy gunfire were heard in the city centre, 25 kilometers (15 miles) away, AFP correspondents reported.

An airport source said Zintan fighters pushed back the assailants but that clashes continued to rage around the facility, as locals reported seeing tanks deploy and smoke billowing.

Authorities closed the airport for at least three days from Sunday after initially halting flights.

The former rebel Zintan militia helped topple strongman Moamer Kadhafi in the 2011 NATO-backed uprising, and is now well established in Tripoli, controlling the airport and military sites.

The heavily armed group, named after a hill town southwest of the capital, is considered the armed wing of the liberal movement jockeying for power with Islamists who dominate parliament.

Sunday's attack was claimed by the Operations Cell of Libyan Revolutionaries, a coalition of Islamist militias seen as the armed wing of Islamists within the General National Congress or parliament.

“The revolutionary forces arrive within the perimeter of Tripoli airport and clash with armed groups inside,” it said on its Facebook page.

The fighting comes weeks after a contested June 25 general election to replace the Islamist-dominated GNC, which has been mired in controversy and accused of hogging power.

Plagued by Lawlessness

Libya, awash with weapons since the uprising three years ago, has also been plagued by growing lawlessness, while on the political front rival cabinets are jostling for power.

The embattled Tripoli government has been powerless to act and has struggled to establish a strong army and police force, allowing ex-rebels a free hand to act.

Sunday's clashes came just hours after the United States warned that the conflict could become “widespread” unless a new parliament is seated quickly and a new constitution drafted.

“The United States is deeply concerned by the ongoing violence in Libya and dangerous posturing that could lead to widespread conflict there,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

“We affirm our support for Libya's democratic transition and urge the seating of the new Council of Representatives as soon as possible.”

She insisted that drafting a new constitution “must advance without interference or violence.”

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In this image made from video by The Associated Press, smoke rises from the direction of Tripoli airport in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, July 13. (AP)

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