TRIPOLI - Rival factions fought each other in Tripoli overnight and into Friday, killing 13 people in the Libyan capital's worst clashes for two years during a dangerous political standoff.
Fighters exchanged fire in a central district where several government and international agencies, along with diplomatic missions, are based, and clashes spread to the areas of Ain Zara and Asbaa.
The main sides involved were both affiliated to the Presidency Council, a three-person body acting as transitional head of state. They included the RADA force, an Interior Ministry spokesperson said.
Fighters from RADA, one of the most powerful forces in Tripoli, were visible around most central areas on Friday morning, while the main Presidency Council building was empty.
Tripoli Ambulance and Emergency Services spokesperson Osama Ali said 13 people were confirmed dead and 27 injured. A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry said three of the dead were civilians. A witness at a hospital said he had seen six bodies.
The shooting began efore midnight and lasted for hours. By midday, the situation was mostly calm in central Tripoli, where some vehicles were burned out and others pocked with bullet hole.
But there were many fighters in the city centre and a Reuters journalist heard further exchanges of fire in Tripoli's southern suburbs, where the telecom company said mobile connections were down due to the unrest.
A security source and a passenger at Tripoli's main Mitiga airport said flights were being rerouted to the airport at Misrata, about two hours drive from the capital.
Libya has been teetering on the edge of chaos for months after the eastern-based parliament rejected the unity government in Tripoli, which was installed through a U.N.-backed process last year, and appointed a rival administration.
It was not clear how far Friday's clashes were linked to the wider political problems, but both prime ministers have support from among the armed factions that control territory in the capital and other western Libyan cities.
The parliament-appointed prime minister, Fathi Bashagha, has been unable to move into Tripoli because groups in the capital backing the Government of National Unity (GNU) there and its prime minister, Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, have prevented his entry.
Over recent weeks, political shifts have pointed to a possible realignment among power brokers and armed factions that could prompt renewed fighting.
The biggest protests for years occurred earlier this month in cities across Libya controlled by rival factions, underscoring popular anger over the lack of elections and poor state services.
Afterwards, factions in several cities detained people suspected of involvement, prompting the U.N. Libya mission to express concern on Thursday.
A blockade of oil output by groups aligned with eastern commander Khalifa Haftar had meanwhile cut off funding to Dbeibah's government.
But last week Dbeibah appointed a new state oil company chief, said to be an ally of Haftar, leading to a swift end of the blockade.
That prompted reports of a deal between Haftar and Dbeibah to keep him in power. This week saw a first visit to Tripoli by a senior officer from Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) as part of scheduled talks to maintain a 2020 ceasefire.
Western Libyan armed factions battled Haftar during his assault on the capital from 2019-20 and refuse to accept him having influence in Tripoli - something that previously counted against Bashagha but may now also be a problem for Dbeibah.
This week Bashagha visited the key western city of Misrata - the hometown of both him and Dbeibah - for the first time since his appointment by parliament. The move led to mobilisations in the city both by groups backing and opposing him.
(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfali; writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Gareth Jones and Toby Chopra)