TRIPOLI: Surrounded by an Islamist militia, Libya's newly elected prime minister took office as the country's interim premier vowed Tuesday not to hand over power, the latest crisis to roil the North African nation as a renegade general leads an offensive against Islamists.
Interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni said in a televised statement that he ordered forces guarding the Cabinet building to stand down to avoid bloodshed late Monday night. That's when militiamen from the Libya Central Shield - one of several militias on the government's payroll - escorted newly elected Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteg into the building, according to daily newspaper Al-Wasat.
Maiteg, a businessman who owns a five-star hotel in the capital, Tripoli, was recently elected prime minister by Libya's Islamist-dominated parliament in a contested vote. He held his first Cabinet meeting behind closed doors shortly after entering the government headquarters Monday, government spokesman Alaa al-Kassab said.
Al-Thinni warned the militia's action could encourage a "cycle of violence." He reiterated his demands for parliament to wait until the country's Supreme Constitutional Court issues a ruling Thursday regarding legality of Maiteg's contested election.
Shortly before al-Thinni statement, a group of Islamist lawmakers also gave a televised statement accusing him of failing to restore security in Libya and of hindering Maiteg from assuming his post. They said that al-Thinni disappeared while members of his Cabinet left the country to prevent the transition of power.
The political struggle over the prime minister's office risks further inflaming Libya as renegade Gen. Khalifa Hifter and army units loyal to him have been battling Islamist militias. A former army chief under dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Hifter has rallied support from the country's weakened military, its anti-Islamist politicians, tribes and diplomats, vowing to crush the Islamist militias he blames for Libya's instability.
Since last weekend, helicopters flown by pilots loyal to Hifter have bombed Islamist militia camps in Benghazi. Benghazi is the birthplace of the uprising that led to the toppling and killing of Gadhafi in Libya's 2011 civil war.
The fighting has paralyzed the city, with schools postponing end-of-term exams and hospitals calling for blood donations. A Benghazi medical official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to journalists, said the death toll from the recent fighting has reached 22 people killed, with dozens wounded. When Hifter's offensive began nearly three weeks ago, nearly 70 people were killed, mostly from his side.
Islamist lawmakers backing Maiteg blamed al-Thinni for the fighting in Benghazi. They also denounced Hifter's offensive, calling it as a form of "terrorism" and a coup.
"The parliament condemns the coup and demands the government to take measures and refer those responsible to trial," one of the lawmakers reading out the joint statement said, adding that Libya now has "two armies under one title."