Tripoli tense after attack on Libyan parliament

Forces loyal to rogue general demanded power Sunday after lawmakers fled under heavy gunfire

The Libyan capital remained tense on Monday, a day after forces loyal to renegade Libyan general Khalifa Hafter demanded parliament freeze work and hand power to a body drafting a new constitution, according to a statement issued late Sunday after the assembly building was attacked.

Libya's interim government condemned the attack in which two people reportedly died and more than 50 were wounded. In a statement issued shortly after midnight Sunday, the interim government largely ignored the declaration by the general's group.

"The government condemns the expression of political opinion through the use of armed force," said Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani in a statement. "It calls for an immediate end of the use the military arsenal ... and calls on all sides to resort to dialogue and reconciliation."

A spokesman for Haftar said it was his forces, called the Libyan National Army, which carried out the assault, expanding his eastern offensive into the heart of the Libyan capital. However, the attack was also claimed by several militias, including al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq.

Libya’s parliament has been accused of being controlled by the Justice and Construction party, which is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist pan-Arab political party which has gained influence in the country after being largely exiled under former strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

This week, a new government is expected to replace the caretaker government and a new prime minister, Ahmed Maiteeq, is expected to be sworn in pending parliamentary approval. Maiteeq is from Misurata, a city with the largest pro-Brotherhood militia, earning him scorn from anti-Brotherhood militias such as  al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq.

The Libyan News Agency reported that the attack on parliament was carried out by the Zintan brigade, another anti-Brotherhood rebel group from about 100 miles southwest of Tripoli, which controls the city's international airport.

That different militias claimed responsibility for the assault further underlines precarious government control of the oil-rich nation — and the complexity the strife — three years after the 2011 civil war that toppled Gaddafi.

The apparent move by Haftar comes after his forces struck two militia bases Friday in Benghazi, the country's second-largest city, setting off clashes that killed 70 people, according to Libya's Health Ministry. The central government labeled his moves a coup attempt and warned that his troops and those who cooperate with them would be tried.

Haftar responded by saying the central government and parliament have no mandate.

Lawmakers fled Sunday’s assault under heavy gunfire. Smoke billowed from the parliament building, and witnesses said the attacking forces shelled the building from the southern edge of Tripoli.

Lawmaker Khaled al-Mashri told Libya's al-Ahrar television station that gunmen entered the parliament complex, damaged the building and attempted to detain employees and guards. Authorities said gunmen detained some 20 lawmakers and officials.

Hafter’s troops targeted “Islamist” lawmakers and officials, his spokesman, Mohammed al-Hegazi, told the al-Ahrar media outlet.

“It appears that there is a united front of paramilitary troops headed by Hafter,” Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council of Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera.

“Today’s events can be explained by two different motives: First, this is the Libyan way to have a coup — a retired army general has created a coalition of militias and former members of the army and decided to overthrow the government.”

 “Or, since the new government is supposed to be formed this week — and the new head of that government is from what many see as a Muslim Brotherhood hotbed — these militias have carried out the attack in order to be able to negotiate from a position of strength with the new government,” Toaldo added.

Haftar told the media late Sunday after the attack that it was not a coup, and that the group was fighting “by people’s choice.”

Libya's parliament has been paralyzed by divisions between its Islamist parties and the more liberal, nationalist rivals. Many Libyans blame the congress for their failure to progress toward democratic transition since the fall of veteran Gaddafi.

After the ousting of Gaddafi, Libya's weak government and army have been unable to impose state authority over heavily armed brigades of former rebels and militias who have become the North African country's powerbrokers.

Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising that toppled Gaddafi, was quiet Sunday, though its airport remained closed for a second day. Libya's military banned flights Saturday to Benghazi and said in a statement that it would target any military aircraft flying over the city.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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