TRIPOLI, Libya: Islamist-led militias Thursday streamed into the Libyan capital amid a standoff with fighters loyal to a renegade general whose offensive has won support from officials, diplomats and army units, but has also threatened to fragment the country further.
The militias, known as Libya Central Shield, are composed of groups from the western city of Misrata. They are under the command of the country’s chief of staff, who answers to parliament.
The force was deployed by an order from the head of parliament to protect the capital, after the council came under attack by forces allied with Gen. Khalifa Haftar.
The Islamist-dominated legislature has described Haftar’s campaign as a coup.
But reflecting Libya’s deep divisions, the government condemned parliament’s move to deploy militias, saying this only “endangers the city and the safety of its residents.”
The statement also expressed fears over what the government described as “imposing a political decision under the rattle of gunfire.”
The government also called on all militias to leave Tripoli.
Witnesses in Tripoli said they saw Misrata militiamen take positions early Thursday inside army barracks in the city’s southern sector, near the airport highway. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their own safety.
The parliament – challenged by its own government, which is pressing for a suspension of the house’s sessions until new elections – called in the forces to face off pro-Haftar militias in the capital.
No fighting was reported on Thursday but pro-Haftar militias, including those from the western mountain of Zintan, posted messages on Twitter accounts calling on Tripoli residents to stay inside their houses after 8 p.m. “for safety” reasons.
The postings sparked concerns of an imminent showdown between the two camps.
Dozens have already been killed since Haftar’s offensive began last Friday, first in the eastern city of Benghazi, and two days later with the storming and ransacking of parliament by militias allied to Haftar, who declared the body suspended.
Haftar Wednesday called for the formation of a presidential council to take over from parliament, oversee elections and hand power after a nationwide vote to a new legislature.
Haftar has also been winning support from several prominent government officials and military units for his campaign against Islamists whom he accuses of tearing the country apart and orchestrating militant attacks with the support of Libya’s Islamist-dominated parliament.
Haftar’s offensive has plunged Libya deeper into instability.
Following the eight-month civil war in 2011 that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the North African oil-rich nation of nearly 6 million people descended into lawlessness.
The conflict left the country without a regular army or a strong police force. Rebels who fought Gadhafi later formed armed militias that turned Libya into fiefdoms and put pressure on the elected government.Daily assassinations, kidnappings and lootings and out-of-control militias have further undermined the government’s efforts to achieve stability.
The government also appears split between Islamists who have denounced Haftar’s offensive and those who back him.
When the government met and delivered its statement Thursday, interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, who is also the country’s defense minister, was absent.
Some army troops, Libya’s air force and the navy have joined Haftar’s self-styled “Libyan National Army,” though it’s not clear how deep the split is among the military.
The latest to side with Haftar was Culture Minister al-Habib al-Ameen, who has also acted as a government speaker.
He urged Libyans in several TV interviews late Wednesday to “rescue the last breath” of the country.