Armed forces stormed the Libyan parliament, the General National Congress (GNC) on 18 May, and demanded its suspension. Officials said the attackers killed two and wounded 55 people, while keeping at least 20 people hostage. The identity of the chaotic attackers was unclear, but loyalists of renegade general Khalifa Hafter claimed responsibility. By attacking the GNC, the gunmen directly challenged the legitimacy of the country’s central government which already struggles to gain authority over the country.
Loyalists to General Hafter stated that the attack targeted the Islamist lawmakers and officials blamed for allowing extremists to hold the country at ransom. Hafter-spokesman Mohammed al-Hegazi said “This parliament is what supports these extremist Islamist entities [...] the aim was to arrest these Islamist bodies who wear the cloak of politics”. Hafter-loyalist militia commander and prison-chief of the Tripoli military police, Colonel Muhktar Fernana, led the attack and announced the suspension of the GNC. He said the attack was not a coup but stressed that legislative power should be handed down to a 60-member constitutional body. He stated “we announce to the world that the country can’t be a breeding ground or an incubator for terrorism”. A few hours after the attack, the gunmen left.
Parliamentary speaker and Military Commander-in-chief, Nuri Abu Sahmain, accused General Hafter of trying to stage a coup. The Libyan government condemned the attack. Justice minister Salah al-Marghani stated “the government condemns the expression of political opinion through the use of armed force [...] it calls for an immediate end of the use of the military arsenal and calls on all sides to resort to dialogue end reconciliation”. Observers say the attack shows the weakness of the central government, as it relies on the same rebels it tries to subdue.
Who is in control?
Earlier this week, General Hafter ordered his forces to end the violence in the eastern port city of Benghazi. He ordered his troops to attack and disperse the Islamist militants (amongst them is Ansar al-Sharia) who are in control of the city that is dubbed ‘the cradle of the revolution’ that toppled long-time leader Gaddafi. Hafter accuses the government of not doing enough to stop the Islamist radicals from taking control of the country. The clashes on 16 May killed some 70 people and were the most violent since the fall of Gaddafi. Violence between both sides flared again on Sunday evening 18 May.
The political turmoil comes after weeks of unrest in the country. Libya’s fifth prime minister since the ousting of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Ahmed Maiteeq, was elected earlier this month in a vote his opponents call fraudulent, and has still to take office. Legislators say the two biggest pro-government militias in Tripoli, al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias, supported the attacks. The government has been struggling to control the country’s myriad of militias that toppled Gaddafi and has been divided between Islamist and non-Islamist factions, supported by different militias.
The international community is very concerned about the security situation in Libya. Ansar al-Sharia has been dubbed a terrorist organisation by the United States. The US announced it would deploy a force of 200 marines, backed by helicopters and vertical takeoff aircraft in Sicily amidst fears for growing unrest in the oil rich nation. Critics claim a united anti-Islamist front could destabilize the country, causing all out civil war.
Sources: Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera, Reuters, The Guardian I, The Guardian II.
Author: Koen Migchelbrink