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Libya's Islamist Militias Claim Control of Tripoli

  • VOA News

Libya is engulfed in new political turmoil, with an Islamist militia openly challenging the legitimacy of the country's elected parliament, after its fighters took control of Tripoli's battered international airport.

After seizing the airport in the Libyan capital, the militia from the coastal city of Misrata called Sunday for the old General National Congress to be reinstated.

It alleged the parliament elected in June was complicit in mysterious airstrikes on Misrati positions at the airport as its militiamen fought rival fighters from the mountainous region of Zintan for six weeks for control of the key facility.

The new parliament, based in Tobruk, 1,600 kilometers east of Tripoli, branded the Misratis as terrorists, along with another group, Ansar al-Sharia, which controls 80 percent of the eastern city of Benghazi

Parliament called the two groups "a legitimate target" of the national army, which has been unable to control violence in the country since the 2011 overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The Misratis directly blamed the airstrikes in the past week on Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Cairo denied its involvement, but the UAE had no immediate comment.

General National Congress

General National Congress official Omar Hmaidan defended the Islamist militias and called on the old assembly to resume its meetings to, in his words, "unite the country.”

Hmaidan said the new parliament should not meet in an “ivory tower” in the east of the country, but should return to the capital Tripoli. He argued the National Congress is still legal and the new parliament cannot claim to speak for the country.

Hmaidan claimed recently the new parliament has “violated the constitution” with a recent call for foreign intervention in Libya.

The National Congress' mandate expired last February and many of its members are outside the country.

Airstrikes on Sunday

Meanwhile, unidentified war planes attacked targets in Libya's capital Tripoli on Sunday, residents said, hours after forces from the city of Misrata said they had seized the main airport.

Tripoli residents heard jets followed by explosions at dawn, but no more details were immediately available.

In recent weeks Libya has seen the worst fighting since the NATO-backed campaign to oust Gadhafi. Renegade general Khalifa Haftar has declared war on Islamist-leaning forces, part of growing anarchy in the oil producer.

His forces claimed responsibility for air raids on Tripoli on Saturday and last Monday, targeting a group called Operation Dawn. But this group, consisting mainly of fighters from Misrata, said on Saturday that it had captured Tripoli's main airport from a rival faction from Zintan in western Libya.

In the campaign to overthrow Gadhafi, fighters from Zintan and Misrata were comrades-in-arms. But they later fell out and this year have turned parts of Tripoli into a battlefield.

Chaos in Libya

Libya's neighbors and Western powers worry Libya will turn into a failed state as the weak government is unable to control armed factions.

Haftar launched a campaign against Islamists in the eastern city of Benghazi in May and threw his weight behind the Zintan fighters.

Fighting also erupted between Haftar's troops and allied army special forces with Islamists in two Benghazi suburbs on Saturday, killing eight soldiers and wounding 35, medics said.

The violence has prompted the United Nations and foreign embassies in Libya to evacuate their staff and citizens, and foreign airlines have largely stopped flying to Libya.

Libya's central government lacks a functioning national army and relies on militia for public security.

But while these forces receive state salaries and wear uniforms, they report in practice to their own commanders and towns.

Edward Yeranian contributed to this report from Cairo. Some information for this report provided by Reuters.

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