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Oil depot catches fire amid clashes in Libyan capital, government appeals for help

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CAIRO — The Libyan government on Monday appealed for international help after a huge oil depot caught fire amid clashes over the country's international airport in the capital, Tripoli.

The interim government said in a statement posted on its website that the fighting between rival militias caused the huge blaze, which could trigger a "humanitarian and environmental disaster."

It appealed for "international help" but did not specify what exactly the government wants the world to do.

Libyan TV stations called on residents to evacuate areas within a five-kilometer (three-mile) radius of the airport. Many Libyan families responded to the call and scrambled to leave their homes. Social networking sites posted images of black smoke billowing over the Tripoli skyline.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Sunday, July 13, 2014 file image made from video by The Associated Press, smoke rises from the direction of Tripoli airport in Tripoli, Libya. The United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday, July 26, 2014, and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said.  (AP Photo/File)
FILE - In this Sunday, July 13, 2014 file image made from video by The Associated Press, smoke rises from the direction of Tripoli airport in Tripoli, Libya. The United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday, July 26, 2014, and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said. (AP Photo/File)

The battle for control of the airport began two weeks ago when Islamist-led militias — mostly from the western city of Misrata — launched a surprise assault on the airport, which has been under control of a rival militia from the western mountain town of Zintan.

The Health Ministry said Sunday that the fighting has so far killed 79 people and wounded more than 400.

On Saturday, the United States evacuated its diplomats from Tripoli to neighboring Tunisia and shut its embassy. The U.N. Support Mission in Libya and the International Committee of the Red Cross have already withdrawn their staff as well.

Also Monday, Mohammed al-Harari, the spokesman for the Libyan National Oil Company, said the oil depot on fire has a capacity of 6 million liters (1.6 million gallons) and that if the fire was not brought under control it could ignite nearby liquid gas storages.

Firefighting engines from several nearby cities and towns have been deployed to help extinguish the blaze, said a Libyan security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media. The fire, which he claimed was now under control, had also destroyed several government and private cars in the area.

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PHOTO: FILE - In this Sunday, July 13, 2014 file image made from video by The Associated Press, smoke rises from the direction of Tripoli airport in Tripoli, Libya. The United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday, July 26, 2014, and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said.  (AP Photo/File)
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