BENGHAZI Libya (Reuters) - Twenty aircraft were damaged by shelling at Libya's main airport in the worst fighting in the capital Tripoli in months as rival militia battled for control, officials said on Wednesday.
Tripoli International Airport became a battlefield at the weekend when a militia launched an attack to try to take control from a rival armed group, part of the turmoil in Libya three years after Muammar Gaddafi was toppled.
The fighting, the worst in Tripoli since November, has halted flights, stranding abroad many Libyans who were planning to return home for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and trapping expatriates. The heavy fighting in Tripoli and clashes in the eastern city of Benghazi prompted the United Nations to pull its staff out of the North African country.
Libyan carrier Afriqiyah had 13 planes damaged along with seven from rival Libyan Airlines, company officials told a televised news conference. Both airlines operate Airbus planes.
"The damage ranges from serious to superficial, and we need time to see how grave the damage is," said Abdulhakim Al-Fares, chairman of Afriqiyah Airlines. He gave no figures for the estimated cost of repairs or replacement aircraft or loss of business.
A Reuters reporter at the airport on Tuesday saw six damaged planes, one of them totally burned out. At least 31 planes were parked at the airport at the time of the shelling.
"We tried to remove the planes from the airport but the attacking force from the east did not stop shelling which made it impossible to relocate the aircraft," said government spokesman Ahmed Lamine.
He was referring to the city of Misrata from which some of the attackers come, pitting themselves against a rival militia from Zintan in the northwest which has been protecting the airport in the absence of state forces since helping to take Tripoli in August 2011 when Gaddafi's government fell.
Gunfire could be heard on Wednesday at the airport, where the Zintan militia was still in control of the main perimeter.
The Libyan government has no control over former rebel fighters who helped topple Gaddafi in a NATO-backed uprising but now defy state authority and often battle for political or economic power.
Ministry of Transport spokesman Tarek Arwa said Libyan carriers had started operating flights to Dubai and Istanbul to bring back citizens stranded abroad, operating out of Misrata and a smaller airport in Tripoli.
Smaller airports in Zuwara and Ghadames in the west would be upgraded to serve international destinations to offset the closure of Tripoli's main airport, he said, without giving a timeframe.
(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami and Feras Bosalum Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Janet Lawrence)