Libya's army chief ordered the deployment of militias to the capital Monday, a day after the storming of the parliament building in Tripoli apparently by a renegade general's forces which also staged an attack in Benghazi on Friday.
Monday's development paves the way for a possible showdown between the militias — which hail from Libya's western and central regions — and the troops allied with Gen. Khalifa Haftar, whose forces said they also suspended parliament and demanded a hand over of power, blaming the house for empowering militias loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to a statement posted on the official Facebook page of the media officer for the President of the General National Congress, Nouri Abu Sahmain signed an order for “Libya's Central Shield,” an umbrella group of powerful militias which answer to parliament, to confront “attempts to take over power” in Tripoli, apparently referring to Haftar’s forces.
Troops loyal to rogue ex-general Haftar attacked the assembly building Sunday and demanded that parliament freeze work and hand off power to a body that would draft a new constitution.
Tripoli remained tense on Monday, and Libya’s interim government denounced the attack in which two people reportedly died and more than 50 were wounded.
"The government condemns the expression of political opinion through the use of armed force," said Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani in a statement shortly after midnight on Sunday. "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 claimed 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. 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.
However, several other militias also took credit for Sunday's attack, including Al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq.
And the Libyan News Agency reported that the attack on parliament was carried out by the Zintan brigade, another rebel group from about 100 miles southwest of Tripoli, which controls the city's international airport.
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 that 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 central government labeled Haftar's moves a coup attempt and warned that his troops would be tried. 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.”
Lawmakers fled Sunday’s assault under heavy gunfire while smoke billowed from the parliament building. Witnesses said the attacking forces shelled the building from the southern edge of Tripoli.
“It appears that there is a united front of paramilitary troops headed by Haftar,” Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert at the European Council of Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera on Sunday.
Toaldo said there were two possible motives for Sunday’s attacks.
“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,” he said.
“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.
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 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.
Al Jazeera and wire services