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Libya power handover agreed as airport battle rages on

The General National Congress, which has governed violence-wracked Libya in the wake of the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qadhafi, said Wednesday it will hand over legislative power to a newly-elected parliament on August 4. But hopes that the announcement would signal an end to fighting among rival factions were dashed as a more than week-long battle intensified for control of Tripoli airport. "Monday, August 4m has been set as the date for the transfer of power ... to the elected chamber," the GNC said in a statement signed by its speaker, Nuri Abu Sahmein.

The handover is to take place within two weeks as specified of Monday's publication of the election results. Under a law passed by the GNC, the new assembly is to sit in the eastern city of Benghazi, which was the bastion of the 2011 uprising but has since epitomised the lawlessness of post-Qadhafi Libya. In Tripoli, there was no sign of a ceasefire on Wednesday between the rival factions fighting around the capital's airport. A fresh appeal from Libya's transitional government for a humanitarian truce fell on deaf ears, with explosions heard from the centre of the capital and plumes of smoke clearly visible.

"Rockets fell on several homes and many families have fled the fighting," local resident Mohamed Farhat, whose home on the airport road was hit by a missile, told AFP. The airport has been closed since July 13 due to clashes which have left at least 47 dead and 120 injured, according to the health ministry. The clashes, the most violent in Libya since Qadhafi's overthrow, started with an assault on the airport by a coalition of armed groups, mainly Islamists, which has since been backed by factions from the eastern town of Misrata.

The assailants are battling to flush out fellow former rebels from Zintan, southwest of the capital, who have controlled the airport for the past three years. The battle has caused serious damage at the airport and at least a dozen aircraft have been destroyed or partially destroyed by fire. An airport spokesman has put the cost of the damage at "several hundred million dollars".

Viewed by their opponents as the armed wing of Libya's liberal movement, the Zintan brigades also hold several other strategic military and civil sites in the southern districts of Tripoli. The battle is seen as part of a struggle for political and regional influence at a time when the new parliament, elected in a June 25 poll, prepares to take power.

The liberal factions have won the most seats in the new assembly, unlike in the previous Islamist-controlled GNC, according to political analysts, and the Islamists are now trying to reassert their influence by military means. Many newly-elected MPs have expressed reluctance about the proposed GNC move to Benghazi, with some refusing to take up their seats because of the city's rampant insecurity.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2014