On Sunday May 18, armed gunmen loyal to renegade General Khalifa Hifter stormed Libya’s parliament and announced its suspension. In a televised statement, Colonel Muktar Fernana said, “We, members of the army and revolutionaries, announce the suspension of the General National Congress,” adding that the assembly will be replaced by the 60-member body that was recently elected to rewrite Libya’s constitution. The group then withdrew toward Tripoli’s airport on the southern edges of the city, clashing with rivals and leaving at least 66 dead. By Monday morning, fighting stopped.
Two days prior to the storming of the parliament building, Hifter’s group, using military aircraft and helicopters, targeted armed extremist militias in Benghazi. By Saturday, hundreds of residents fled their homes as clashes escalated. A spokesman for Hifter urged residents in the Benghazi districts of Al-Qawarshah, Sidi Faraj and Al-Hawari to leave their homes for their own safety. In the aftermath, the Libyan Ministry of Health said 70 people had been killed and 141 wounded.
The effort is part of Hifter’s plan, Operation “Dignity of Libya”, which calls for a large-scale campaign targeting militias and suspected extremists in Benghazi. Hifter told a local TV station, “The operation will continue until Benghazi has been cleansed of terrorists.”
Authorities have ordered Hifter to stand down, and consider his actions to be tantamount to a coup. Earlier this year, Hifter called for a military coup against Libya’s interim government but received little support. However, officers loyal to Hifter’s group, called the Libyan National Army (LNA), deny the claim because they do not believe the current Libyan parliament or their newest Prime Minister, Ahmed Maitiq, have legitimacy.
Hifter and the Libyan National Army
Hifter was an army commander under Gadhafi until the 1980s, when he defected and fled to the United States. He stayed in the US for over two decades, leading to accusations that his current actions are being supported, even bankrolled, by Washington. After the death of Gadhafi, the Libyan transitional government appointed Hifter to rebuild the Libyan military; however he was removed shortly after his appointment.
Hifter’s group, the LNA has been comprised mainly of irregular forces, however a number of Libyan army commanders have already defected to join Hifter’s troops. Last week, troops at a military air base in Tobruk reportedly joined Hifter’s forces, and on 19 May, the top commander of the Libyan elite al Saiqa Special Forces announced that his troops had joined forces with the LNA. Some battalions of the border guards have also declared for Hifter. The move is indicative of the rift in the military, with some being loyal to the interim government and others seeking a different solution.
In addition to military support, Hifter appears to have the support of one of the country’s most powerful militias from the western Zintan region. A number of tribes across the east and west have also formed an alliance with Hifter, as have separatists seeking more autonomy for eastern Libya Hifter is seeking support from tribes in the centre and south of the nation in order to succeed in stopping extremists throughout the nation.
In response to the attack on parliament, Libyan head of the legislature Nouri Abu Sahmein ordered the Libyan Army and pro-parliament militias to deploy in Tripoli to resist what he called “the attempt to wreck the path of democracy and take power.” The majority of these militias are based in Misrata. Online footage has depicted hundreds of pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, tanks and armoured vehicles making their way into the capital.
Also opposing Hifter are extremist groups, including the al-Qaeda inspired militant group, the Lions of Monotheism. In a video posted on extremist websites, a masked militant calling himself Abu Musab al-Arab, vowed to fight Hifter’s troops, saying, “You have entered a battle you will lose.” Some of the extremist groups Hifter is targeting, particularly Ansar al Sharia, are based in the east.
Following the fighting in Benghazi, Benina International Airport, 12 miles east of the city, has been shut down after unknown attackers fired rockets in the area. The head of the Libyan Army’s General Staff issued a ban on flights over the city on Saturday, saying any military aircraft would be fired on by Libyan army units and allied militia. All Egyptian and Tunisian flights to Benghazi have been suspended.
A number of foreign embassies in Tripoli have shut down, including those of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Algeria. Algeria and Egypt have also closed their borders with Libya, and the Egyptian government is contemplating evacuating Egyptian citizens.
Unidentified gunmen have kidnapped a Tunisian diplomat in Tripoli. The abduction was confirmed Saturday by Tunisia’s foreign minister.
According to embassy sources, the incident occurred late Friday when the kidnappers forces Mohamed bin Sheikh into their vehicle in the Ain Zara suburb of eastern Tripoli. The diplomat is a secretary to the Tunisian ambassador in Libya.
Speaking Saturday, Tunisian Foreign Minister Mongi Hamdi confirmed that “a Tunisian diplomat was kidnapped in Tripoli…” adding “the Tunisian ambassador told me that his car was found empty.” Tunisia’s ministry is currently in contact with Libyan authorities to obtain more information and to set up efforts to secure Mr Sheikh’s release. They have also urged Libyan authorities to protect members of its diplomatic mission.
Although the motive behind the abduction remains unclear, with no group claiming responsibility or demanding a ransom, some sources have suggested that the move may be linked to Tunisia’s war against its own Ansar al-Sharia, which has connections to Ansar in Libya.
This latest abduction is just one of a string of diplomatic abductions that have occurred in the Libyan capital this year alone. It further demonstrates the weak Libyan government’s struggle to curb militias while it attempts to build a democracy after four decades of dictatorship under Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
In January, five Egyptian diplomats were briefly kidnapped in Tripoli in what security officials stated at the time was in retaliation for Egypt’s arrest of a Libyan militia chief. They were later freed, with Egypt also releasing the militia commander. During the same month, a South Korean trade official was kidnapped as he left his office in Tripoli. He was freed days later by security forces. Libyan officials later stated that his kidnapping was not politically motivated.
Although there has been a rise in the number of abductions of foreign diplomats in Libya, the threat of kidnapping has not been solely focused on officials. In recent months, foreigners have also been targeted, however the motives remain unclear. In December 2013, an American teacher was shot dead in Benghazi while in January, a British man and a New Zealand woman were shot execution-style on a beach in western Libya.
Three years after Libya’s revolt to topple Muammar Gaddafi, the North African country continues to struggle to impose security as brigades of former rebels, Islamist militants and ex-fighters refuse to disarm. While Libyans view these groups as both a blessing and a curse, as on the one hand in the absence of an effective army they provide security across much of the country and protect the borders, on the other hand, they have taken the law into their own hands, with some groups being accused of human rights abuses and unlawful detention. One of the most high-profile incidents involving these militias was the October 2013 kidnapping of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan by a group which was originally set up to provide security in the capital city. In turn, these militia groups have also been involved in a number of clashes. In November 2013, clashes broke out in the capital between militias from the town of Misrata and local protesters. The incident left more than fifty people dead and hundreds wounded. It also sparked a backlash against the armed groups in Tripoli, resulting in several of the militias leaving the capital, including Misrata and Zintan who had been there ever since the war.