TRIPOLI, Libya — Militias apparently backing a renegade Libyan general attacked the country’s parliament today, kidnapping some 20 lawmakers and officials in an assault that threatened to further splinter a country dominated by the armed groups that overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi three years ago.
A spokesman for the Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a one-time rebel commander who said the U.S. backed his efforts topple Gadhafi in the 1990s, said the forces acted under his command. Backed by truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, mortars and rocket fire, the gunmen sent lawmakers fleeing for their lives as they ransacked the legislature. Heavy gunfire rang out into the night in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, panicking residents as mortar rounds landed in their neighborhoods.
The attack, which hospital officials said killed one person and wounded nine, came after an assault Friday by Hifter’s forces on Islamist militias in the restive eastern city of Benghazi that authorities said killed 70 people. On Sunday, gunmen targeted the Islamist lawmakers and officials Hifter blames for allowing extremists to hold the country ransom, his spokesman Mohammed al-Hegazi told Libya’s al-Ahrar television station.
“This parliament is what supports these extremist Islamist entities,” al-Hegazi said. “The aim was to arrest these Islamist bodies who wear the cloak of politics.”
The fighting spread to the capital’s southern edge Sunday night and along the highway leading to the airport.
Libya’s army and police rely heavily on the country’s myriad of militias, the heavily armed groups formed around ethnic identity, hometowns and religion that formed out of the rebel factions that toppled Gadhafi. Bringing them under control has been one of the greatest challenges for Libya’s successive interim governments, one they largely failed at as militias have seized oil terminals and even kidnapped a former prime minister seemingly at will.
In the fighting Sunday, officials believe members of the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias, the largest in the capital, backed Hifter even though they operate under a government mandate. Al-Qaaqaa posted a statement on its official Facebook page saying it attacked parliament with Sawaaq because lawmakers supported “terrorism.”
The two groups previously gave parliament an ultimatum to dissolve after its mandate expired in February, threatening to detain lawmakers. They never carried out their threats but parliament eventually vowed to hold elections later this year.
Islamist-backed parliamentary head Nouri Abu Sahmein later told Libyan television station al-Nabaa that the militias loyal to the government have matters “under control,” and vowed to convene parliament Tuesday.
“Those who plan and plot such things want to strike here and there to make others feel he has influence,” Abu Sahmein said. “We are not in battle with individuals. We are carrying out a role that we were elected to do.”
However, an official with the Libyan Revolution Operation Room, an umbrella group of militias groups in charge of the security in the capital, said the gunmen “kidnapped” some 20 lawmakers and government officials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists.
Lawmakers said security officials tried evacuate them before attackers breached the parliament, following warnings the building would be assaulted.
Libya’s parliament is divided between Islamist and non-Islamist factions, with rival militias lining up behind them. Recently, Islamists backed the naming of a new prime minister amid walkouts from non-Islamists.
Libya’s new interim prime minister has not yet named a Cabinet. However, lawmaker Khaled al-Mashri told al-Ahrar that attackers wanted to prevent lawmakers from picking a new Cabinet as a list of nominees reached legislators Sunday.
It’s not clear which militias and political leaders support Hifter, but his offensive taps into a wider disenchantment among Libyans with its virtually powerless government. Backers 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 revenue.
Hamed al-Hassi, who was head of the army for the autonomous Barqa region, was a leading member of Hifter’s Benghazi offensive Friday. He backed the assault on parliament Sunday, saying power should be handed over to a civilian authority if Libya’s current interim government collapses.
“We don’t seek authority,” he said.
On Saturday, Hifter appeared before journalists in his military uniform and promised he would press on with his Benghazi offensive, despite warnings by the central government that cooperating troops will be tried. They labelled his moves a coup attempt.
Hifter, a native of Benghazi, helped Gadhafi overthrow King Idris in 1969. He later served as his military chief of staff, but found himself captured by Chadian forces in the late 1980s. Authorities in Chad later released him and Hifter joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the main Libyan opposition group at the time. Hifter later moved to Virginia and, in interviews with Arab media in the 1990s, described himself as building an armed force with U.S. assistance to “eliminate” Gadhafi and his associates.
He returned to Libya and briefly served as a commander of its fledging national army after Gadhafi’s death. In February, he remerged in Libya via an online video in which he addressed the nation while wearing his military uniform and standing in front of the country’s flag and a map, proclaiming he intended to “rescue” the nation.
Authorities described the video as a coup attempt, though he apparently was never arrested. Later, rumors circulated he visited military bases in eastern Libya to rally support before launching his Benghazi offensive Friday.
El Deeb reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.