TRIPOLI: Heavily armed gunmen stormed Libya’s parliament with anti-aircraft weapons yesterday in an assault claimed by forces loyal to a renegade ex-general who has vowed to purge the country of Islamist militants.
In a confusing, chaotic attack, heavy smoke rose from the parliament building in Tripoli as gunmen clashed with guards. A Reuters reporter said the attackers raided and left, and other unknown gunmen later closed off nearby streets.
Another witness said attackers had kidnapped two people and heavy gunfire could be heard across other parts of Tripoli, where rival brigades of former rebels have often clashed since ending their 2011 war against Muammar Gaddafi. Details of who carried out the parliament attack were unclear, but a spokesman for retired Libyan general Khalifa Haftar said his forces had carried out the assault as part of his campaign to rid Libya of Islamist militants.
“These are members of the Libyan National Army,” Mohamed Al Hejazi, spokesman for the group said, using the name of the irregular forces loyal to Haftar.
Haftar, a former rebel in the war against Gaddafi, 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.
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 yesterday’s attack, but he denied that.
After the 2011 NATO-backed war, Libya’s weak government and nascent army struggled to impose any authority over heavily armed brigades and militias who once fought Gaddafi and have become powerbrokers often challenging the state.
Libya’s parliament has been paralysed by divisions between Islamist parties and more nationalist rivals, leaving many Libyans frustrated at the lack of progress toward democratic transition since the fall of Gaddafi.
Militia brigades in armoured trucks mounted with anti-aircraft canons have often stormed parliament, occupied ministries and even kidnapped the prime minister last year in a show of military muscle to make political demands. But yesterday’s attack on parliament was the most serious violence in the capital for months, and appeared to expand Haftar’s campaign against hardline Islamists, who emerged as a force in North Africa since the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.
Lawmaker Omar Bushah told Reuters that gunmen had stormed into the General National Congress building, raiding lawmakers’ offices and set the building on fire. REUTERS