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Tuesday 23 January 2018

Militias stream into Libya capital

Militias are fuelling tension in Libya's capital Tripoli.
Militias are fuelling tension in Libya's capital Tripoli.

Islamist-led militias today streamed into the Libyan capital Tripoli amid a stand-off 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 General Khalifa Hifter. The Islamist-dominated legislature has described Gen Hifter's campaign as a coup.

But reflecting Libya's deep divisions, the government condemned the 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.

The show of force prompted the head of Tripoli's municipal government, al-Sadat al-Badri to resign late today, saying in a televised statement that the "Libyan people ... are torn between militarised entities jockeying for power".

Witnesses in Tripoli said they saw Misrata militiamen take positions early today 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-Hifter militias in the capital.

No fighting was reported today but the stand-off in the capital between the Misrata Islamists and the pro-Hifter militiamen sparked fears of a showdown.

A Twitter posting attributed to a militia backing the general told residents to stay at home after 8pm, but the militia later denied association with the account the warning came from.

Already, dozens of people have been killed since Gen Hifter's offensive began last Friday, first in the eastern city of Benghazi and then, two days later, with the storming and ransacking of parliament by militias allied to Gen Hifter, who declared the body suspended.

On Wednesday, Gen Hifter 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.

Gen Hifter 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.

Gen Hifter's offensive has plunged Libya deeper into instability.

Following the eight-month civil war in 2011 that toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the North African oil-rich nation of nearly six million people descended into lawlessness.

The conflict left the country without a regular army or a strong police force. Rebels who fought Gaddafi later formed armed militias that turned Libya into fiefdoms and put pressure on the elected government.

Daily assassinations, kidnappings and lootings - more frequent on the eastern half of the country and the heartland of the rebel movement - 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 Gen Hifter's offensive and those who back him.

When the government met and delivered its statement today, interim prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni, who is also the country's defence minister, was absent.

Some army troops, Libya's air force and the navy have joined Gen Hifter's self-styled Libyan National Army, though it's not clear how deep the split is among the military.

The latest to side with Gen Hifter was Culture Minister al-Habib al-Ameen, who has also acted as a government speaker.

He urged Libyans in several TV interviews late yesterday to "rescue the last breath" of the country.

Press Association

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