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 rumors of a coup in February when he appeared on
television in uniform calling for a caretaker government to end
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.
But the most powerful, heavily armed brigades are rivals - the
Zintans and the Misratans - loosely allied with competing political
factions battling to define what kind of state Libya should become
three years after Gaddafi's fall.
Compounding the chaos, another former rebel commander, Ibrahim
Jathran, who occupied eastern oil ports last summer, said he
supported suspending parliament and handing over legislative power
to the constitutional-drafting body.
His protest to demand more federal autonomy and a greater share of
oil wealth for his eastern region has helped cut Libya's crude
output to around 200,000 barrels per day from 1.4 million bpd before
[to top of second column]
Gunfire and explosions could still be heard until late at night on
the airport road which is controlled by a brigade from Zintan, a
staunchly anti-Islamist force.
Libyan news websites said forces from Zintan had initially stormed
the parliament and then retreated to the airport road, but there was
no confirmation from Zintan or the anti-Islamist Qaaqaa brigade
about their involvement.
On Saturday, parliamentary speaker and military commander-in-chief
Nuri Abu Sahmain accused Haftar of trying to stage a coup. Several
reports said Sahmain had been kidnapped after Sunday's attack, but
he denied that.
Haftar had already sent his fighters into Benghazi on Friday against
Islamist militants based there, claiming Libya's government had
failed to halt violence in the eastern city.
At least 40 people were killed in those clashes, which involved some
air force helicopters.
In Benghazi, the cradle of the uprising against Gaddafi, authorities
have struggled to curb violence and stem attacks blamed on Ansar
al-Sharia, an Islamist group that Washington labels as a terrorist
Clashes broke out in two areas of Benghazi on Sunday night between
Haftar's forces and Islamist militants, and unknown attackers fired
Grad rockets at the city's airport, a security source said. There
was no immediate report of casualties.
After Gaddafi, Libya's fragile democracy has hobbled from crisis to
crisis with the country on its third prime minister since March, its
new constitution unwritten and its parliament caught up in constant
The parliament has been paralyzed by rivalries between the Islamists
tied to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and a nationalist movement,
leaving many Libyans frustrated over lack of progress since the war.
Many former rebel fighters have been put on the government payroll
to provide security to ministries and offices, but they often remain
more loyal to commanders, political allies or their regional tribes
than the state.
(Additional reporting by reporting Feras Bosalum; Writing by Patrick
Markey; Editing by Rosalind Russell, Bernard Orr and Eric Walsh)
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