TRIPOLI: Fighting erupted in Libya’s capital Wednesday, killing at least two people after the top air commander signaled support for a renegade general campaigning to dissolve parliament and wipe out Islamists.
It was not immediately clear who started the clashes, but government figures and Islamist groups in parliament – some of them with allied militias – have become increasingly alarmed by signs of growing support for General Khalifa Hifter.
Forces loyal to him stormed parliament Sunday.
Western powers fear Hifter’s bid to persuade army units to join his campaign will split the military and trigger more turmoil in the oil producer which is struggling to restore order three years after the fall of strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
Tripoli residents reported several loud explosions early Wednesday near the Yarmouk air defense barracks after air defense top commander Juma al-Abani released a video message saying he was joining “Operation Dignity,” Hifter’s campaign against Islamists.
Heavy fighting involving anti-aircraft machine guns mounted on trucks also broke out overnight near an army camp in Tajoura, an eastern suburb, witnesses said. The city was quiet by dawn.
At least two people from Mali died in the fighting, a Health Ministry source said.
Compounding the political chaos, state news agency LANA said the Interior Ministry had also joined Hifter’s campaign, a report that was dismissed minutes later by the acting interior minister.
Highlighting the seriousness of the security threat, the navy’s chief of staff, Rear Admiral Hasan Abu Shnak, his driver and two guards were wounded when gunmen attacked his convoy in Tripoli.
It was not immediately known what political leanings, if any, Abu Shnak has or what might have prompted the attack.
He was on his way to work when his convoy came under fire, spokesman Colonel Ayub Kassem told AFP. “He was lightly wounded in the head. A driver and two guards were also wounded, but their injuries are not life threatening.”
Meanwhile, the country’s new prime minister, Ahmad Maiteeq, said he wanted to form a Cabinet open to all political factions that rejected the use of weapons.
Asked about the violence and chaos gripping the oil producer, Maiteeq said Libya needed dialogue to solve its problems.
“I personally promise to hold negotiations with all sides,” said Maiteeq without mentioning Hifter by name, in his first news conference since he was elected this month in a chaotic parliamentary vote disputed by some lawmakers.
Libya has been plunged into turmoil since its 2011 uprising ended Gadhafi’s one-man rule.
Hifter, a former Gadhafi ally who split with the autocrat in the 1980s, is the latest player to emerge in Libya’s network of ex-fighters vying for control over parts of the country.
Successive governments have complained that the claim by the General National Council to executive power as well as legislative authority has tied their hands in taming the militias. The country’s electoral commission has proposed a June 25 vote for the currently Islamist-dominated GNC, in a bid to find a way out of the crisis.
While some observers doubt it will take place, one Western diplomat told AFP the vote could indeed go ahead.
“The electoral commission has the logistical and human resources needed to organize the elections on schedule,” the diplomat said.
The United States said it was ready to help usher in new elections, a U.S. official said. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington was waiting for official word from Tripoli, adding “we certainly would support and encourage Libya to quickly officially announce parliamentary elections.”
Militiamen Sunday stormed the GNC, and fought for six hours with other armed groups on the airport road.
They claimed loyalty to Hifter and demanded the suspension of parliament in a bid to rid Libya of hard-line Islamist lawmakers.
Culture Minister Habib Lamin, an informal Cabinet spokesman, told Reuters some deputies had asked the government to arm the Islamist militant group Ansar Shariah to confront Hifter.
“The government rejected this,” he said and, underlining tensions between government and parliament, accused deputies of having contributed to the chaos by approving militia funding in the past.
“Most support for militias came from parliament,” he added.
Parliament is split between Islamist parties loosely allied to the Muslim Brotherhood, the anti-Islamist National Forces Alliance, and scores of independents and tribal leaders of varying allegiances.
In a further sign of unrest, gunmen abducted three Chinese engineers from their construction site in the eastern city of Benghazi Tuesday, according to China’s official press agency, Xinhua. One was later found shot and died in hospital while his two colleagues were released, Xinhua reported.