TRIPOLI // Forces loyal to a rogue Libyan general attacked the country’s parliament on Sunday, expanding his eastern offensive against Islamists into the heart of the country’s capital.
The attack forced members of Libya’s General National Congress to flee under a barrage of heavy gunfire.
The violence, three years after the 2011 civil war that toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi, threatens to further splinter a country dominated by militias.
The troops of General Khalifa Haftar were targeting Islamist legislators and officials, his spokesman said.
Gen Haftar blames the officials for allowing extremists forces to exert unrivalled influence in the country, Mohammed Al Hegazi told Libya’s Al Ahrar television station.
“This parliament is what supports these extremist Islamist entities. The aim was to arrest these Islamist bodies who wear the cloak of politics,” Mr Al Hegazi said.
He said forces loyal to Gen Haftar met resistance from militias he accused of “holding the country hostage.” He called the parliament the “heart of the crisis” in Libya.
Forces loyal to Gen Haftar on Friday launched attack against Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi in what he said was an operation against terrorist groups.
On Saturday, he said he would press on with his offensive in Benghazi, despite warnings by the central government that cooperating troops would be tried. They labelled his moves a coup attempt.
Gen Haftar responded by saying the central government and parliament had no mandate.
Gunfire near parliament on Sunday could be heard for kilometres around. Smoke billowed from a distance over the parliament building, as witnesses said the attacking forces shelled the building from the southern edge of the city.
The Libyan Revolution Operation Room, an umbrella group of militias groups who answer to the interim parliament and are in charge of the security in the capital, said fighters engaged the attackers but there were no reports of casualties.
A spokesman for the group said the attacking forces were suspected to be members of the Al Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias, the largest in the capital. While they operate under a government mandate, they back the non-Islamist political forces.
The two militias earlier gave parliament an ultimatum to dissolve after its mandate expired in February, threatening to detain legislators if they refused. They never carried out their threat, though parliament pledged to hold elections later this year.
The Al Qaaqaa and Sawaaq bases are near the parliament.
A security official said the attackers also shelled a nearby military base controlled by an Islamist militia.
He said they had received warnings that the parliament building was to be assaulted ahead of the attack.
Libya’s parliament is divided between Islamist and non-Islamist forces who have bickered over appointing a new government and holding new elections. Rival militias, which wield the real power in Libya, have lined up behind competing political factions.
Islamists forces recently backed the naming of a new prime minister, amid walkouts from the non-Islamist groups. The new interim prime minister has not yet named a cabinet.
But splits in Libya are also regional and ethnic, with longstanding rivalries between the country’s eastern and western regions.
After Gen Haftar launched his offensive in Benghazi, many of his supporters pushed for him to take action in Tripoli, complaining about the ineffective government.
The fighting in Benghazi has killed 70 people so far, Libya’s health ministry said.
Benghazi, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled Libya’s late dictator Muammar Qaddafi, was quiet on Sunday, though its airport remained closed for a second day.
Libya’s weak central government described the offensive by forces loyal to Gen Haftar, which includes air support, as tantamount to a coup. The violence there and in Tripoli shows how precarious government control remains three years after the civil war.
Libya’s military banned flights to Benghazi on Saturday and said it would target any military aircraft flying over the city.
* Associated Press