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Libya's Fragile Peace Is Smashed as Gunmen Seize Parliament

A militia group led by a former rebel commander stormed Libya's parliament building on Sunday, amid renewed fighting.
Photo via AP

Libya lurched into further chaos this weekend as some of the heaviest fighting seen since the country's 2011 uprising broke out, and a militia group led by a former rebel commander seized the country's parliament building.

The situation continued to escalate today as the country’s armed forces and parliament head Nuri Abu Sahmein ordered Islamist militias to deploy in the capital of Tripoli in defense of the city. Then, the Lions of Monotheism, an al Qaeda wannabe group, upped the likelihood of things getting even messier by saying it would back up the Islamists against anyone who opposed them.


Libya's central government now looks more ineffectual than ever as a result, unable to manage without nor control the sharply divided armed groups that hold the balance of power in the country.

The parliament attack was carried out on Sunday by militia forces loyal to Khalifa Hifter, a retired colonel who fought against Libya's former leader Muammar Qaddafi. Hifter’s men stormed the parliament building, backed by rockets, mortars, and heavy gunfire. At least two people were killed and 55 injured in the ensuing fighting as officials fled the building, according to Reuters.

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Hifter portrays himself as taking on extremist Islamist groups and accuses Islamist militant and political factions of having made a power grab in the country,

Military police prisons head General Mokhtar Farnana read a statement on Libyan al-Ahrar TV channel on behalf of Hifter's group, saying it had assigned a 60-member constituent assembly to run parliament and that the current government would continue as an emergency cabinet, according to AFP.

Farnana portrayed the attacks as being staged at the demand of the people rather than being a military coup. Appearing in uniform in front of a Libyan flag, he said: "We announce to the world that the country can't be a breeding ground or an incubator for terrorism.”

Hifter’s men pulled out after the assault, leading to some subsequent fighting on the airport road and on the outskirts of the city. The Associated Press reported that a member of the Libyan Revolution Operation Room, a coalition of militias which looks after much of Tripoli’s security, said 20 politicians and government officials were captured by Hifter.


Post by Sami Elmegaref.

In response, Sahmein, who is associated with Libya’s Islamist political factions, ordered "Libya's Central Shield" group of Islamist fighters to deploy in Tripoli.

The extremist Lions of Montheism militant group, one of many inspired by al Qaeda operating in Libya, announced today that it would back up Islamic militias targeted by Hifter’s forces. In a video statement reported by AP, a masked militant identified as Abu Musab al-Arabi said: "You have entered a battle you will lose."

This morning also saw reports of a rocket attack on an air base in Benghazi. The city, Libya's second-largest and birthplace of the uprising against Qaddafi, was also the scene of clashes between Islamist groups and secular militia, apparently Hifter's, on Friday. Seventy people were reportedly killed.

Libya has been far from stable since an armed uprising removed longtime ruler Qaddafi from power in 2011. Since then, once fairly unified rebel forces have fragmented into a number of militia groups divided along ethnic, geographical, and religious lines. Each holds sway over a different part of the country and all are making plays for power and influence. The rebel groups have proven almost impossible for the government to control and some have even seized oil pipelines and ports.

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Parliament itself has been split between the majority Islamists and their opponents, with each backed by their attendant militias. The political situation is precarious. Libya is now on its third prime minister since March, and a long-promised new constitution remains unwritten due to bickering between rival factions.


Libya’s Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani condemned the attacks, called for an end to fighting and for “all sides to resort to dialogue and reconciliation" in a televised address. He claimed the government was still functional, although it is not yet apparent whether the government has retaken parliament.

Authorities sought to reassure the public. On Saturday, after the fighting in Benghazi, a statement carried by the Libyan News Agency (LANA) said that Tripoli was calm and that the situation was under control. It also sought to discourage militias from further violence. “The government warned all revolutionaries not to be drawn by ill-designed rumors aimed at destabilizing the city. It urged all revolutionaries to stay where they are and to protect the places they are entrusted to protect them." The warning was spectacularly ignored.

Then, this morning, LANA carried a statement from the Ministry of Education saying that the school exam schedule would not be affected by the weekend's events. It told students, teachers, and parents to ignore “rumors” and that pupils should attend school as usual.

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Not everyone is so confident. The European Union voiced alarm about the escalation in violence. “The EU is deeply concerned about the significant deterioration of both the political and security situation in Libya and deplores the loss of life in Benghazi and in Tripoli after the recent violent episodes in both cities,” a spokesperson told VICE News. “The EU urges all parties to avoid further bloodshed and refrain from further violence…. The EU emphasizes the urgent need for all parties to work jointly to forge broad consensus on management of the transitional period in order to ensure a successful transition to a stable democracy.”

Between Hifter and the Lions of Monotheism and their ilk, there seems to be little will to do so, however. And it looks unlikely that the government will be unable to contain events. National Forces Alliance party member Tawfik Breik told the BBC: "There's no real parliament in here, in Libya. There's no real government… There's militias everywhere.”

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck