TRIPOLI: Libya's army chief ordered the deployment of Islamist-led militias to the capital Tripoli on Monday in response to the storming of parliament by forces loyal to a renegade general, paving the way for a possible showdown between rival militia fighters.
The revolt by Gen. Khalifa Hifter threatens to detonate the long volatile divisions among the multiple militias that dominate Libya amid the weakness of the central government and military. Hifter says he aims to crush Islamists he accuses of seizing control of the country and he appears to have the support of some militias from the eastern half of the country and the western Zintan region.
In the other camp, parliament chief Nouri Abu Sahmein - an Islamist-leaning politician - ordered a powerful umbrella group of mainly Islamist militias known as "Libya's Central Shield" to mobilize on Monday to defend against Hifter's forces. The umbrella group is dominated by a militia from Libya's third largest city, Misrata.
Further raising the potential for chaos, one of Libya's many al-Qaida-inspired extremist groups on Monday vowed to fight Hifter's forces.
"You have entered a battle you will lose," a masked militant, identifying himself as Abu Musab al-Arabi, said in a video posted on militant websites by the Lions of Monotheism.
The confrontation further deepens the chaos Libya has endured since the 2011 ouster and killing of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi. With militias running rampant, the central government has little power, and the army and police remain shattered since the civil war that ousted Gadhafi. Parliament is divided between Islamist parties - which hold a majority - and their opponents, each of which are backed by rival militias.
Hifter, a former rebel in the fight against Gadhafi, appears to be trying to harness widespread public frustration with the government's impotence, vowing get rid of extremists and impose an effective authority.
On Sunday, militiamen loyal to him stormed the parliament building in Tripoli, ransacking the building. Two people were reportedly killed and more than 50 wounded. Hifter's allies then announced that the legislature had been suspended and replaced by a new emergency body that would run the country.
The attack in Tripoli followed assaults Friday by Hifter's forces on Islamist militias in the restive eastern city of Benghazi, which authorities said killed 70 people.
Libyan officials believe members of the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias - the largest in Tripoli - backed Hifter. His backers also 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 revenues.
Hifter's declaration of parliament's suspension was largely ignored, and his forces pulled out late Sunday. For hours afterward, fighting took place around the road to the Tripoli's airport and its southern outskirts. By Monday morning, the gunfire 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-term exams were suspended. The ministry urged students to go to school as normal.
Bringing the militias under control has been one of the greatest challenges for Libya's successive interim governments, one they have largely failed at as militias have seized oil terminals and even kidnapped a prime minister, seemingly at will. The militias arose from the rebel brigades that were created to fight Gadhafi's forces but have since expanded dramatically in size and power. Many are based in particular cities or neighborhoods, some are based on ethnic identity - and others are based on Islamist or al-Qaida-inspired ideologies.