Tripoli: Libya has lurched ever closer to fragmentation and civil war this weekend after Islamist-led militias seized the airport in the capital Tripoli, proclaimed their own government and presented the world with yet another crisis.

Fajr Libya (Operation Dawn), a coalition of Islamist and Misrata forces, captured the airport on Saturday in fierce fighting against pro-government militias after a five-week siege that has battered parts of the capital. Television images from the scene showed jubilant bearded militias dancing on wrecked airliners, firing machine guns in the air and chanting “Allah O Akbar” (“God is great”). On Sunday, they set the airport buildings ablaze, apparently intending to destroy rather than hold it.

The victory, which secures Islamist control over Tripoli, was a culmination of weeks of fighting triggered by elections in July which Islamist parties lost. Rather than accept the result, Islamist leaders accused the new parliament of being dominated by supporters of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and have sought to restore the old national congress.

“The general national congress will hold an emergency meeting in Tripoli to save the country,” said congress spokesman Omar Ahmidan.

Libya’s official parliament, the House of Representatives, in the eastern city of Tobruk, denounced the attack as illegal, branding Dawn a “terrorist organisation” and announcing a “state of war” against the group. The move leaves Libya with two governments, one in Tripoli, one in the east of the country, both battling for the hearts and minds of the country’s myriad militias.

There are few regular forces for the government to call on, with the prime minister, Abdullah Al Thinni needing to persuade nationalist and tribal militias to try to recapture the capital. Dawn militias are consolidating their hold on the capital by rounding up government sympathisers and people from Zintan, whose militia defended the airport.

“Units from Garyan and Abu Salem are circling the area looking for any Zintani they can find,” said one frightened resident hiding at an address in the city.

Fighting continues to the west of Tripoli while Islamist brigades in Benghazi, 400 miles east, are battling with army units and nationalist militias of former general Khalifa Haftar.

The weekend’s developments threaten to tilt the country across the line from troubled post-Arab spring democracy to outright failed state. Egypt and Sudan are known to be watching developments closely, and last week the French president, Francois Hollande, said that despite the crises in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Gaza, his “biggest concern at the moment is Libya”.

Some officials in neighbouring countries fear militants may use airliners at the three airports Fajr Libya now controls for terror attacks on surrounding countries. Those fears were heightened after Fajr Libya officials vowed retaliation against Egypt, whom they blame for air strikes on Saturday morning by unidentified jets which killed 17 Misrata militias.

Algeria has deployed air defence missiles on its border while Egypt and Tunisia have banned flights from western Libyan airports.

The security situation has become so parlous in Libya that it has been forced to withdraw as host for the African Cup of Nations in 2017.

Libyan officials have arrived in Egypt before a summit in Cairo on Monday in which they are expected to appeal for military support. Libya’s foreign minister, Mohammad Abdul Aziz, launched a similar appeal at the UN in July, but found no support, with diplomats wary about a new foreign intervention.

Fajr Libya leaders insist they are not extremists, characterising themselves as patriots ensuring that the gains of the 2011 revolution are not lost.

Many Libyans think fragmentation is now inevitable, with Islamist-led forces strong in Tripoli and tribal and nationalists dominant in the east of the country. “It’s gone into complete madness,” said Hassan Al Ameen, a Libyan politician who fled to Britain after receiving death threats from Misrata militias. “There’s another battle coming up, between east and west.”

The key to victory may be as much economic as military. Libya’s government may have lost control of the capital, but for the moment it has international recognition, ensuring access to the country’s rich oil reserves and foreign assets worth an estimated 80bn.

French diplomats say that in the present power struggle involving rival armed factions, the UN security council should take a leading role to forge a political solution and prevent the country from splitting apart.

France sent two frigates to Tripoli to evacuate the remaining French nationals from Libya on 29 July. Forty-seven French nationals and a number of Britons were evacuated secretly in the night-time operation.

But experts say that military intervention in Libya at this time either by France or within a Nato coalition looks unlikely.

“Nato’s got its hands busy with Ukraine,” said Camille Grand, director of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratgique. “And in France, everyone’s looking at Iraq, Syria and the Sahel.”

“Who would be the driving force? And what would be the trigger now that French nationals have been evacuated? There aren’t any volunteers to get involved in a quagmire that looks like Somalia now.”

- Guardian News and Media Ltd.