Tripoli joint security forces move toward the parliament.
Vehicles with heavy artillery of the Tripoli joint security forces move towards the parliament building. May 18, 2014. Photo by AP
Text size
related tags

The Libyan capital remained tense on Monday, a day after forces loyal to a renegade general stormed the parliament and said they suspended the house, challenging the legitimacy of the country's weak central government, three years after the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Libya's leadership condemned Sunday's brazen attack in which two people reportedly died and more than 50 were wounded, and vowed to carry on.

The attack saw militia members backed by truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, mortars and rocket fire raid the parliament building in the heart of Tripoli, sending lawmakers fleeing for their lives as gunmen ransacked the legislature.

Hours later, a commander in the military police in Libya read a statement announcing the suspension of parliament on behalf of a group led by General Khalifa Hifter, a one-time rebel commander who said the U.S. had backed his efforts to topple Gaddafi in the 1990s.

Mokhtar Farnana, speaking on a Libyan television channel on behalf of Hifter's group, said it assigned a 60-member constituent's assembly to take over for parliament. Farnana said Libya's current government would act on as an emergency Cabinet, without elaborating.

Farnana, who is in charge of prisons operated by the military police, said forces loyal to Hifter carried out Sunday's attack, insisting it was not a coup, but a battle by "the people's choice."

"We announce to the world that the country can't be a breeding ground or an incubator for terrorism," said Farnana, who wore a military uniform and sat in front of Libya's flag.

Libya's interim government condemned the attack on parliament in a statement issued shortly after midnight Sunday, and largely ignored the declaration by the general's group.

"The government condemns the expression of political opinion through the use of armed force," Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani said in a statement. "It calls for an immediate end of the use the military arsenal ... and calls on all sides to resort to dialogue and reconciliation."

Militias that backed the country's interim government manned checkpoints around the capital late Sunday. Hifter's forces in Tripoli appeared concentrated around the road to the city's airport and its southern outskirts.

By Monday morning, gunfire along the capital's airport highway had died down and a tentative calm returned to the city.

Authorities seemed determined to convey a message of business-as-usual. Libyan news agency LANA cited the Ministry of Education as denying that high school end-of-tern exams were suspended. The ministry urged students to go to school as normal.

The attack on parliament followed an assault Friday by Hifter's forces on Islamist militias in the restive eastern city of Benghazi, which authorities said killed 70 people.

Sunday's attack in Tripoli targeted the Islamist lawmakers and officials Hifter blames for allowing extremists to hold the country ransom, his spokesman Mohammed al-Hegazi told Libyan television station al-Ahrar.

"This parliament is what supports these extremist Islamist entities," al-Hegazi said. "The aim was to arrest these Islamist bodies who wear the cloak of politics."

Libyan officials believe members of the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias — the largest in Tripoli — backed Hifter, even though they operate under a government mandate.

Since Gaddafi's overthrow, Libya's army and police have relied on the country's myriad of militias, the heavily armed groups formed around ethnic identity, hometowns and religion that emerged from the rebel factions that toppled Gaddafi.

Bringing the militias under control has been one of the greatest challenges for Libya's successive interim governments, one they largely failed at as militias have seized oil terminals and even kidnapped a former prime minister, seemingly at will.

An official with the Libyan Revolution Operation Room, an umbrella group of militias groups in charge of the security in the capital, said the gunmen in Sunday's "kidnapped" some 20 lawmakers and government officials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.

However, the abduction of the 20 could not immediately be confirmed and LANA made no mention of the officials being seized. The attackers left the parliament building after they ransacked it in the assault.

Libya's legislature 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, who said the new government would be illegitimate.

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.