Clashes erupt in Libyan capital after air chief backs rogue general

Reuters News
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Posted: May 21, 2014 12:03 PM

By Ahmed Elumami and Feras Bosalum

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Explosions and fighting erupted in Libya's capital in Wednesday, killing at least two people after the top air commander signaled support for a renegade general who is campaigning to dissolve parliament and wipe out Islamists.

It was not immediately clear who was behind the fighting, but the government has become increasingly alarmed by signs of growing support for General Khalifa Haftar. Forces who said they were loyal to him stormed parliament and clashed with other soldiers on Sunday.

Western powers fear Haftar's bid to persuade army units to join his campaign will split the military and trigger more turmoil in the oil producer which is struggling to restore order

three years after the fall of strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Compounding the political chaos, state news agency LANA said on Wednesday the interior ministry had also joined Haftar - a report that was dismissed minutes later by the acting interior minister.

Tripoli residents reported several loud explosions early on Wednesday near the al-Yarmouk air defense barracks after air defense top commander Juma al-Abani released a video message saying he was joining "Operation Dignity" - Haftar's campaign against Islamists.

Heavy fighting involving anti-aircraft machine guns mounted on trucks also broke out overnight near an army camp in Tajoura, an eastern suburb, witnesses said. The city was quiet by dawn.

At least two people from Mali died in the fighting, a health ministry source said.

Libya has been plunged into turmoil since its 2011 uprising ended Muammar Gaddafi's one-man rule.

Many have grown frustrated with the interim government's failure to contain Islamist groups and other militias and commanders who took part in rebellion, and who have since openly defied the authorities to demand more oil wealth and power.

Western governments are concerned Libya's instability may worsen and spill over into its North African neighbors, who are still emerging from the political unrest following the 2011 "Arab Spring" revolts.

On Sunday, militiamen stormed the General National Congress (GNC), Libya's parliament, and fought for six hours with other armed groups on the airport road.

They claimed loyalty to Haftar - who had retired from the army - and called for the suspension on parliament in a bid, they said to rid Libya of hardline Islamist lawmakers and fighters.

The fighting came two days after Haftar announced he was launching his own military campaign against Islamist militants in Benghazi in the east.

In Benghazi, gunmen abducted three Chinese engineers from their construction site on Tuesday, according to China's official press agency, Xinhua.

One was later found shot and died in hospital while his two colleagues were released, Xinhua reported.

Militants around Benghazi have targeted foreigners in the past, including an attack on the U.S. consulate in 2012 in which U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died.

(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami, Feras Bosalum and Ulf Laessing; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Patrick Markey, Andrew Heavens)