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Misrata militia topples city leaders in blow to Libya 'unity' plan

Misrata Military Council kicks out municipal officials amid rivalry between 'moderates' and 'hardliners' in city
Libyan national flag is seen through hole in destroyed building on Tripoli street in Misrata (AFP)

A group of Misrata-based militias said on Tuesday that it had taken over the Libyan city’s elected municipal council, as tensions boiled over between factions beneath the umbrella of the country's "unity government".

In a statement from the Misrata Military Council (MMC) and its allied militias - the Union of Revolutionary Fighters (URF) and the Misrata Security Department - MMC chief Ibrahim Bin Rajab said the group had overthrown the municipal council after it refused to negotiate with protesters over its management of the city.

“A committee was set up to mediate between the protesters and the municipal council, but the latter refused to meet with the committee without giving any justifications,” the Libya Observer cited the statement as saying.

Demonstrations against the council were reportedly sparked by its decision to send Hassan Shaba, a former ally of Muammar Gaddafi, and Misrata mayor Mohammed Eshtaiwi, to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with rival militias in the capital, Tripoli, after four days of fighting there.

The powerful MMC has been battling in the capital against rival groups, including men loyal to former prime minister Khalifa al-Ghwell, who opposes the unity government.  Many of Ghwell's loyalists are themselves Misratan.

The ceasefire to end those clashes, brokered by the UN-backed Presidency Council (PC), was signed on 16 March.

According to Bin Rajab, Misrata's institutions will continue to function but will sever contact with the council's members. A new steering committee is expected to be selected in place of the council until new elections are held, reported Libyan media on Tuesday.

Internal divisions 

The developments in Misrata come amid ongoing rivalry between "moderate" forces represented by Mayor Eshtaiwi and "hardliners" siding with the MMC and its leader Rajab. 

National politicians and city councillors had warned on Monday of growing divisions between moderates and hardliners in the city, after Misrata's TV and the local radio station were attacked on Sunday night by unidentified militants.

Meanwhile, renegade general Khalifa Haftar, another opponent of the Tripoli unity government with a powerbase in Benghazi, has sent forces to face Misratan militias in the south and centre of Libya.

"It's clear they [Mayor Eshtaiwi and the council] have come under heavy pressure from part of the population and the military council," European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) expert on Libya, Mattia Toaldo, told Middle East Eye.

He said Eshtaiwi was caught between two forces: pressure from Haftar and Misratans unhappy over the crackdown on Ghwell in Tripoli.

Sources on the ground have said that while a "municipal coup" might be underway, council members are still in their positions and yet to step down.

Council members also issued a statement saying that they "rejected the intervention of military council members in civil issues", reported Alarbiya news on Wednesday.

“Anti-Haftar feelings in Misrata and in Tripoli have hardened," said Toaldo.

“Should the mayor remain in place, the upheaval of these days will have national consequences,” he added.

On 30 January MMC announced that all militias operating under its control had joined the Central Military Zone of the Libyan Army, a group of forces based in west Libya that supports the PC against the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Haftar.

Many, although not all of the units under the control of the MMC formed the major part of the Bunyan Marsous operations (BM), which took control of Sirte from Islamic State militants in December. According to Toaldo, regardless of how things develop, the upheaval in Misrata will likely push people further away from Haftar.

“A destabilised Misrata will be less willing to compromise both with Haftar and with other actors across Libya,” said Toaldo.

“Ultimately, what is happening in Misrata could be yet another stumbling block to the political solution to the conflict.”