TRIPOLI, Libya: A dramatic spike in lawlessness in Libya’s two largest cities has edged the country closer to full-scale war between heavily armed rival militias, stirring concern abroad and on oil markets.
Libya’s parliament chief ordered Islamist-led militias to deploy in the capital Tripoli on Monday, trying to impose control after forces loyal to a renegade general Khalifa Haftar stormed the legislature’s building.
In the eastern city of Tobruk, an air force base on Monday said it was allying itself with Haftar. A statement from the air base said its personnel wanted to fight what it called extremists, echoing the rhetoric of the rogue general.
“The Tobuk air force base will join...the army under the command of General Khalifa Qassim Haftar,” the statement said. Staff at the air base confirmed its authenticity.
Heavily-armed gunmen apparently loyal to Haftar had stormed parliament on Sunday demanding it be suspended and power handed over to a 60-member body that is rewriting Libya’s constitution.
The Tobruk air base development was significant as it was not clear how much backing Haftar’s men had within Libya’s nascent regular armed forces and the powerful brigades of former rebels who had toppled Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Haftar, once a Qaddafi ally who turned against him over a 1980s war in Chad, fueled rumors of a coup in February when he appeared on television in uniform calling for a caretaker government to end the crisis in Libya.
His forces attacked militants in the eastern city of Benghazi on Friday. More than 70 people were killed.
Tripoli was quiet on Monday with most people staying indoors after fighting raged across the capital on Sunday. Two people were killed in that violence.
The international airport was open though some flights were canceled as travelers could not easily reach it. But authorities extended the closure of Benghazi airport for another week because of the unrest, the airport director said. It was attacked with rockets overnight.
Saudi Arabia closed its embassy in Tripoli and evacuated its diplomatic staff due to security reasons on Monday.
Since the end of Qaddafi’s one-man rule, the main rival militias of ex-rebels have become powerbrokers in Libya’s political vacuum, carving out fiefdoms and flexing their military muscle to make demands on the state
On Sunday, militias backing Haftar 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. Haftar’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.
‘Libya’s Central Shield’
The general appears to be harness widespread public frustration with the government’s impotence and with Islamists’ power. Opponents, in turn, accuse him of seeking to grab power.
In response, parliament chief Nouri Abu Sahmein — an Islamist-leaning politician — on Monday ordered a powerful umbrella group of mainly Islamist militias known as “Libya’s Central Shield” to mobilize and defend the city against Haftar’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-Haftar 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.
One of Libya’s many Al-Qaeda-inspired extremist groups on Monday vowed to fight Haftar’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.
On the other side, a militia group known the Special Forces, led by a prominent commander, Wanis Abu Khamada, called on people to rise up and hold street protests against Islamic extremists, though it stopped short of announcing a full alliance with Haftar.
“We will not hand the nation to a bunch of criminals, takfiris and deviants from the faith,” the group said on its website. Takfiri is an Arabic term referring to Islamic extremists.
The western mountain town Nalout showed how the conflict could divide communities. A militia group in the town called the Military Council announced its support for parliament. But an army unit in the town announced its backing for Haftar.
Haftar 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 figured from Zintan — are behind him.
Haftar also draws strong backing in the eastern part of the country, including his home city of Bengazhi, Libya’s second largest city, where anger at Islamic 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.
Mohammed Al-Fitori, a political analyst based in Misrata who is close to the city’s militias, denounced Haftar, accusing him of trying to destroy the nascent democracy Libya has struggled to create since the “revolution” that ousted Qaddafi.
“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 is general public backing there for Haftar because he is seen as a figure who “can rescue them from terrorism.” But the lawyer said he personally worries that after defeating Islamists, Haftar would become a new dictator.
“I don’t want a new Qaddafi,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Haftar’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.
On Tuesday, parliament is due to hold a session to give a vote of confidence in a new Cabinet, according to lawmaker Mohammed Al-Samoud. That could pose a new test whether Haftar will try to enforce his declaration and prevent the session. Islamists succeeded in removing the Western-backed prime minister earlier this year and installed a replacement, prompting some opponents to quit parliament.