By Ahmed Elumami
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Rival armed groups battled overnight and into Friday in the worst outbreak of fighting in the Libyan capital Tripoli for more than a year.
Black smoke rose into the sky and explosions reverberated around the Abu Salim and Hadba districts, and an eyewitness said a major road nearby had been blocked off with shipping containers. Gunfire echoed across several other neighborhoods.
Tripoli is controlled by an array of armed groups which sporadically clash over territorial control or economic interests. Some groups have quasi-official status, but no government has succeeded in taming their power since the uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi five years ago.
The violence is the latest setback for the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which arrived in the capital in March with the acquiescence of some powerful armed factions but has struggled to assert its authority.
The GNA is part of Western efforts to end Libya's chaos and unite factions aligned with two rival governments that were set up in Tripoli and eastern Libya in 2014. But the GNA has faced resistance from power brokers in eastern Libya and more recently from figures associated with a previous government in Tripoli that it had tried to displace.
Tripoli residents have become increasingly critical of the GNA as its leaders have failed to resolve severe economic problems, restore public services and improve security. Rumors of fresh violence in Tripoli had spread in recent weeks as the GNA's position was seen to weaken further.
"The clashes between militias in Tripoli haven't stopped and there's no sign of the GNA," one resident, Mohammed Salem, told Reuters on Friday. People in Tripoli had little idea about any political maneuvering behind the clashes, he said.
"What is going on in Tripoli is a war of power ... every militia badly wants to gain power because they know if they control the capital they rule," Salem said.
Sustained gunfire started on Thursday as armed groups mobilized military vehicles including tanks and pick-up trucks mounted with heavy weapons.
Overnight, a camp belonging to one brigade was bulldozed by a rival faction, according to videos posted on social media. There were unconfirmed reports that at least seven people had been killed. Some shops were shut and frightened residents rushed to stock up on provisions.
One of the capital's bigger armed groups, the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade, asserted that it had taken control of the Al Nasr Forest area around the Rixos hotel. A new legislative body linked to the GNA was ousted from the Rixos buildings in October.
Factional fighting in 2014 destroyed Tripoli's international airport. The area around the city's remaining airport, Mitiga, was calm on Friday and flights were operating.
(Writing by Aidan Lewis; editing by Mark Heinricb)