BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — A self-declared prime minister said Thursday that his forces have seized at least three ministries in Libya's capital, declaring what appeared to be a miniature coup after what he described as a yearlong failure of the current U.N.-backed premier.
Khalifa Ghwell told The Associated Press by phone from Tripoli that his forces control the ministries of defense, labor and the "martyrs and the wounded." His so-called National Salvation government was formed by the outgoing parliament after a disputed 2014 transfer of power that led to the establishment of rival governments, each backed by an array of militias.
The U.N. helped establish a third government in Tripoli last year under Fayez Serraj, a Western-backed technocrat, hoping he could unify Libya and lead the fight against Islamic extremists. The oil-rich North African country slid into chaos after the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
A spokesman for Serraj's government dismissed the moves by Ghwell's forces, saying "they are trying to sow chaos but they have no means to control." He said the ministries Ghwell claimed to have seized are either under maintenance, not controlled by Serraj's government, or were seized briefly before being let go.
"This is nothing more than a media hoax," Ashraf Tulty said. "They are trying to sabotage the only internationally-recognized government in Libya."
In a televised speech, Ghwell declared that all the past arrangements brokered by the U.N. are "invalid," and described Serraj's government as "expired." Referring to his forces as the "Presidential Guard," he ordered them to secure the capital and warned other militias to stand down. He also called for new talks among Libyan factions without foreign mediators.
"We are the ones with legitimacy," said Ghwell. "We extend our hands to our Libyan rivals," he added, saying "God's Shariah will rule among us," without elaborating.
Ghwell's earlier government was closely allied with Islamist groups, including some hard-line factions.
He said conditions have gone "from bad to worse" in the year since Serraj's government was formed, as the country has grappled with a financial crisis. Libyans line up in front of banks for days in order to get cash, while the capital suffers from frequent power outages and shortages of basic goods.
The cash crisis stems from a dispute between Serraj and the head of the central bank, who has declined to release funds needed to run the U.N.-brokered government since March, when Serraj arrived aboard a vessel to Tripoli. Only this month, the central bank approved a $26 billion annual state budget.
"We gave him a year, and when he failed, we decided to return (to power)" Ghwell told the AP. When pressed for details, including on how he plans to fund his Cabinet, he replied: "Wait, and you will see what happens in the coming days."
The internationally recognized parliament, based in Libya's far east, does not recognize the authority of Serraj or Ghwell. It is closely allied with Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, whose forces have been battling Islamic militants in recent years.
Hifter's forces overran several oil terminals last year, and he has cultivated support from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. On Wednesday, he visited a Russian aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea.
There have been nationwide calls for amending the UN-brokered deal. Members of the internationally-recognized parliament told the AP that the army, the state-run oil corporation, and the central bank should be placed under the assembly's control.
"We need to go back to the political agreement and start all over again," said Al-Hadi Belaour, a lawmaker who had earlier supported Serraj's unity government.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.