CAIRO: A Libyan activist who had become an international face of her strife-torn country’s efforts to build a democracy was assassinated by gunmen who stormed her home in the restive eastern city of Benghazi, police said Thursday.
The slaying of Salwa Bugaighis stunned residents of her home city, as well as politicians, activists and diplomats, among whom she was well known.
Bugaighis, a lawyer and rights activist, was at the forefront of the 2011 uprising against dictator Moammar Gadhafi. After his ouster, she became one of the most outspoken voices against militiamen and Islamist extremists who have run rampant in the country.
The identity of the gunmen was not immediately known. Islamist militias, however, have been blamed for frequent assassinations of secular activists, judges, moderate preachers, policemen and soldiers in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city.
Bugaighis was shot in the head and stabbed multiple times Wednesday night, just hours after casting her ballot in Libya’s parliamentary elections, police spokesman Ibrahim al-Sharaa said. She was rushed to a hospital, where she died of her wounds, he said.
Her husband, a member of the Benghazi Municipal Council, was also at home at the time of the attack and has disappeared, believed to have been abducted, Sharaa said.
Earlier in the day, Bugaighis had been speaking by phone from her home on a Libyan TV channel about fighting raging near her neighborhood, sparked when militants attacked army troops deploying to protect polling stations.
On her Facebook page, she posted a photo out her window showing what appeared to be militants in fatigues with a black banner just outside her house.
“These are people who want to foil elections,” she told Al-Nabaa network as rattling gunfire interrupted her call. “ Benghazi has been always defiant, and always will be despite the pain and fear. It will succeed.”
In the evening, five gunmen broke into her home, the house’s guard told police, Sharaa said. They first asked about her son Wael, then shot the guard in the leg, then broke into the house. The guard said he heard gunfire from inside.
Bugaighis’ house is located in an area where two powerful Islamist militias are operating – Rafallah Sahati and Ansar al-Shariah, according to Sharaa. The latter is a prime suspect in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
Bugaighis had only just come to Benghazi from the capital, Tripoli, to cast her ballot in the election, a family friend Hanaa Mohammad told Libya Ahrar TV. She had fled with her family some time ago to Jordan because of death threats against them. The son, Wael, survived an abduction attempt earlier in the year.
More recently, she and her husband came back and were staying in Tripoli, though their two children – including Wael – remained in Jordan, a family friend said.
Hours after her killing, a car bomb struck the headquarters of a 60-member panel tasked with drafting the constitution in the eastern city of Al-Baida, Sharaa said. No one was killed in the attack, but the historic building used under the monarchy as parliament headquarters suffered damage.