Anti-Haftar militias deploy in Tripoli
Islamist-inspired militias intensified their push-back against renegade general Khalifa Haftar’s campaign on Thursday, as reports emerged that opposition forces had entered the capital Tripoli.
The militias are believed to be part of a group known as the Libya Central Shield, which is mainly composed of armed factions from the western city of Misrata. They are under the command of the country's chief of staff, who answers to parliament, and have pledged their support for the body. Since 2011, it has become common for Libya's parliament members to exude influence over paramilitary forces, some of which have even been officially integrated into the national military.
According to witnesses interviewed by AP, the Misrata militiamen have taken positions inside army barracks in the south of the city, near the airport highway. No fighting has as yet been reported, but pro-Haftar militias, including those from the western mountain of Zintan, posted messages on their Twitter accounts calling on Tripoli residents to stay inside their houses after 8 pm "for safety" reasons.
Media reports have said that the head of parliament and General National Congress ordered the militia deployment in order to protect the capital. The move comes after several prominent military and political figures declared their support for Haftar, possibly bringing the country closer to the brink of civil war.
However, in a sign of the divisions ripping through Libya, the government slammed the development.
"This threatens the security of residents in Tripoli," Culture Minister Habib Lamin told reporters. "We have a critical and dangerous situation." He also condemned the parliament's move to deploy militias, saying this only "endangers the city and the safety of its residents" while expressing fear that the parliament was "imposing a political decision under the rattle of gunfire."
Libyas parliament or General National Congress, elected in 2012, is divided but has been criticised by Haftar for being too Islamist-dominated. The government, however, is seen as closer to former prime minister Ali Zeidan who is now in exile and has pledged his support for Haftar.
Haftar first launched an assault, labelled Operation Dignity, on the eastern city of Benghazi last Friday. He said he intended to “purge” the town of Islamist factions that he claims are trying to seize even more control in Libya.
Forces loyal to the former rebel leader then stormed the GNC building in Tripoli on Sunday, forcing the body to disband. The parliament has since set up shop in a luxury hotel in Tripoli, saying it would remain there until forces from Misrata arrived to protect the building from Haftar’s “coup.”
Haftar has since called for Libya's highest judicial authority, the civilian presidential high council, to replace the GNC and “to form an emergency cabinet and organise legislative elections.” The call came despite the GNC’s recent promises to hold elections on 25 June, a move it had hoped would help to quell tensions.
The arrival of Libya Central Shield militias comes a day after fierce fighting broke out in Tripoli with local and international media reporting fighting involving anti-aircraft batteries in the east of the city, with at least two people reported killed.
Already, dozens of people have been killed and more than a 150 injured since Hifter's offensive began last Friday.
Libyan Prime Minister Ahmed Miitig called Wednesday for a wide-reaching dialogue whlie stressing that "Libyans don't want to be ruled by the military," in a veiled reference to Haftar.
Miitig, an Islamist-backed liberal businessman, was named Libya's new prime minister earlier this month. He is Libya's youngest and fifth prime minister since the country's 2011 uprising against dictator Moamer Gaddafi.
"Libya is going through an ordeal," Miitig told a press conference in capital Tripoli.
He said that the current turmoil in his country is the results of developments in the past three years, but rejected the claim that the "revolutionaries" – who fought against Gaddafi – were the country's problem.
"They are the solution as they support the army and police," he said, going on to call on the Libyans to close ranks to build their country's institutions.
Opponents have accused Haftar of being in the pay of the United States, where he lived in exile for two decades, although Washington has distanced itself from Haftar in recent days.
However, on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the US State Department said the country is ready to help organise new elections in Libya in hopes of ushering in a more stable government.
"We're prepared to help support elections preparation from here," State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said on Wednesday, cautioning that Washington was still waiting for official word from Tripoli.
Washington has a range of tools at its disposal, she said, declining to confirm however whether the US would be prepared to help with security arrangements.
While the situation appeared relatively normal with schools and shops still open, Benghazi and Tripoli airports have both been closed, while several foreign embassies have withdrawn diplomatic staff our of security concerns.