TRIPOLI, (Reuters) – Heavily armed gunmen stormed Libya’s parliament yesterday demanding its suspension and claiming loyalty to a renegade army general who has vowed to purge the country of Islamist militants.
Smoke rose over parliament after gunmen attacked and then withdrew, and gunfire erupted across Tripoli, where rival militias clashed in some of the worst violence in the city since the end the 2011 war against Muammar Gaddafi.
Details of who was involved Sunday’s chaotic attack were unclear, but loyalists of retired General Khalifa Haftar said his forces and militia allies had planned the parliament assault in a campaign to rid Libya of Islamist hardliners.
Any alliance of militias lining up against Islamist groups threatens to deepen chaos in the OPEC oil producer where a fragile government already struggles to gain legitimacy and impose authority over brigades of former fighters.
“We announce the freezing of the GNC,” said Colonel Mukhtar Fernana, a former military police officer from the Zintan region, reading out a statement on al-Ahrar TV.
Haftar’s spokesman Mohamed al-Hejazi said Fernana’s group was allied to the former general.
Fernana said their movement was not a coup, but said the parliament had no legitimacy and should hand over power to a 60-member body that was recently elected to rewrite Libya’s constitution.
It was not immediately clear how much backing Haftar’s men had within Libya’s nascent regular armed forces and the country’s powerful brigades of former rebels or whether the parliament was fully under government control after the attack.
Justice Minister Saleh al-Mergani condemned the assault on parliament and rejected the group’s demands.
“The government demands an immediate stop to military action and use of force to express political opinion,” he told a news conference calling for dialogue.
Witnesses said armed local residents were blocking roads to the parliament building after the attack, but their identities and affiliation were not clear.
The attackers kidnapped about 10 employees from the GNC, an official said. At least two people were killed and another 55 wounded in the violence, officials said.
Haftar, once a Gaddafi ally who turned against him over a 1980s war in Chad, fueled rumours of a coup in February when he appeared on television in uniform calling for a caretaker government to end Libya’s crisis.
Since the end of Gaddafi’s one-man rule, militias of ex-rebels have become de-facto powerbrokers in the vacuum of Libya’s political chaos, carving out fiefdoms and exercising their military muscle to make demands on the state.