According to The Associated Press, militias backing a renegade Libyan general attacked the country's Parliament on Sunday (May 18), kidnapping some 20 lawmakers and officials in an assault that threatened to further splinter a country dominated by gunmen that overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi three years ago.
A spokesman for the Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a one-time rebel commander who said the US backed his efforts topple Gadhafi in the 1990s, said the forces acted under his command. A dubious statement at best.
Backed by truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, mortars and RPGs, gunmen sent lawmakers fleeing for their lives as they ransacked the legislature. Heavy gunfire rang out into the night in Libya's capital, Tripoli, panicking residents as mortar rounds landed in their neighborhoods.
The attack, which hospital officials said killed one person and wounded nine, came after an assault Friday (May 16) by Hifter's forces on Islamist militias in unpredictable Benghazi that authorities said killed 70 people.
On Sunday, gunmen targeted the Islamist lawmakers with officials Hifter blaming extremists in holding the country ransom, his spokesman Mohammed al-Hegazi told Libya's al-Ahrar television station.
COMMENT: It seems very unclear as to who precisely is in control of the Libyan government, which is why each day I will provide daily sitreps (situation reports) until details become clearer as to who is actually in charge of the country.
Until details become more transparent, I urge foreigners of all nationalities to defer travel to Libya. Those foreigners already in the country should remain in their homes and follow the suggestions of security managers.
The fighting spread to the capital's southern edge by Sunday night and along the highway leading to the airport.
Libya's army and police rely heavily on the country's myriad of militias, the heavily armed groups formed around ethnic identity, hometowns and religion that formed out of the rebel factions that toppled Gadhafi.
In the fighting Sunday, officials believe members of the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias, the largest in the capital, backed Hifter even though they operate under a government mandate. Al-Qaaqaa posted a statement on its official Facebook page saying it attacked Parliament with Sawaaq because lawmakers supported "terrorism."
The two groups previously gave Parliament an ultimatum to dissolve after its mandate expired in February, threatening to detain lawmakers. They never carried out their threats but parliament eventually vowed to hold elections later this year.
Islamist-backed Parliamentary head Nouri Abu Sahmein later told Libyan television station al-Nabaa that the militias loyal to the government have matters "under control," and vowed to convene Parliament on Tuesday (May 20).
Lawmakers said security officials attempted to evacuate them before assailants breached the Parliament, following warnings the building would be assaulted.
Libya's Parliament is divided between Islamist and non-Islamist factions, with rival militias lining up behind them. Recently, Islamists backed the naming of a new prime minister amid walkouts from non-Islamists.
Libya's new interim prime minister has not yet named a Cabinet. However, lawmaker Khaled al-Mashri told al-Ahrar that attackers wanted to prevent lawmakers from picking a new Cabinet as a list of nominees reached legislators Sunday.
It's not clear which militias and political leaders support Hifter, but his offensive taps into a wider disenchantment among Libyans with its virtually powerless government. Backers include members of a federalist group that had declared an autonomous eastern government and seized the region's oil terminals and ports for months, demanding a bigger share of oil revenue.
On Saturday, Hifter appeared before journalists in his military uniform and promised he would press on with his Benghazi offensive, despite warnings by the central government that cooperating troops will be tried. They characterized Hifter's moves a coup attempt.
Hifter, a native of Benghazi, helped Gadhafi overthrow King Idris in 1969. He later served as his military chief of staff, but found himself captured by Chadian forces in the late 1980s.
Authorities in Chad later released him at which point Hifter joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the main Libyan opposition group at the time.
Hifter later moved to Virginia and, in interviews with Arab media in the 1990s, described himself as building an armed force with US assistance to "eliminate" Gadhafi and his associates.
Hifter returned to Libya and briefly served as a commander of its fledging national army after Gadhafi's death. In February, he remerged in Libya via an online video in which he addressed the nation while wearing his military uniform and standing in front of the country's flag and a map, proclaiming he intended to "rescue" the nation.
Authorities described the video as a coup attempt, though Hifter was never arrested. Later, rumors circulated he visited military bases in eastern Libya to rally support before launching his Benghazi offensive on Friday.