Middle East

Lawless Libya edges closer to civil war

Elite Libyan unit's commander Colonel Wanis Bukhamada (C) sits among his men as he delivers a press statement on May 19, 2014 in the eastern city of Benghazi. (AFP PHOTO/ABDULLAH DOMA)

TRIPOLI: An elite Libyan unit joined a renegade general Monday to battle Islamists in the east as rising lawlessness in the nation’s two largest cities edges it closer to civil war.

In Tripoli, the parliament chief ordered Islamist-led militias to deploy in the capital, trying to impose control after forces loyal to former Gen. Khalifa Hifter stormed the parliament building in a move that raises the potential for a showdown between rival militias.

The general appears to be able to harness widespread public frustration with the government’s impotence and with Islamists’ power. Opponents, in turn, accuse him of seeking to grab power.

Militias backing Hifter Sunday stormed parliament and ransacked the building before withdrawing to the southern part of the capital, where they clashed with rivals in fighting that reportedly killed two and wounded 50. Hifter’s camp declared the suspension of the legislature and the handover of its powers to a 60-member body recently elected to write the constitution.

In response, parliament chief Nouri Abu Sahmein – an Islamist-leaning politician – Monday ordered a powerful umbrella group of mainly Islamist militias known as “Libya’s Central Shield” to mobilize and defend the city against Hifter’s forces.

Abu Sahmein said in the order that the mobilization was to counter “the attempt to wreck the path of democracy and take power.”

The conflict threatens to polarize Libya’s militias into pro-Hifter and pro-Islamist camps and pit the two sides against each other. Already some among the hundreds of militias around the country were starting to line up.

The commander of Libya’s elite special forces unit said Monday he had allied with Hifter, giving the general’s campaign a significant boost.

“We are with Hifter,” Special Forces Commander Wanis Bukhamada told Reuters in the eastern city of Benghazi. On live television he had earlier announced his forces would join “Operation Dignity,” as Hifter calls his campaign.

The special forces are the best trained troops of Libya’s nascent army. They have been deployed since last year in Benghazi to help stem a wave of car bombs and assassinations, but struggled to curb the activities of heavily armed Islamist militias roaming the city.

An air base in Tobruk in Libya’s far east also declared alliance with Hifter’s force to to fight “extremists.”

“The Tobruk air force base will join ... the army under the command of Gen. Khalifa Qassim Hifter,” the statement said. Staff at the air base confirmed its authenticity. Hifter appears to have the support of one of the country’s most powerful militias, that of the western Zintan region. The two largest militias in Tripoli – the Al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq, both of which are commanded by figures from Zintan – are behind him.

Hifter also draws strong backing in the eastern part of the country, including his home city of Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, where anger at Islamist extremists is high after months of near-daily killings of military and police officials, judges, activists and clerics by suspected extremists.

The Islamist parties, in turn, are backed by another of the country’s most powerful militias – the militia based in the western city of Misrata, the country’s third-largest city.

One of Libya’s many Al-Qaeda-inspired extremist groups 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.

Mohammad al-Fitori, a political analyst based in Misrata who is close to the city’s militias, denounced Hifter, accusing him of trying to destroy the nascent democracy Libya has struggled to create since the “revolution” that ousted Gadhafi. “We are against the military rule and against terrorism. We are the revolution,” he said.

In Benghazi, a lawyer prominent in the city said there was general public backing there for Hifter because he was seen as a figure who “can rescue them from terrorism.” But the lawyer said he personally worried that after defeating Islamists, Hifter would become a new dictator. “I don’t want a new Gadhafi,” he said, speaking on condition.

In the face of growing anarchy in the capital, Saudi Arabia Monday closed its embassy and evacuated diplomatic staff.

The United States said it was monitoring the situation closely, but had not taken any decisions to close its own embassy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 20, 2014, on page 1.




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