Libyan Parliament Reportedly Suspended After Renegade Forces Storm Building, Allegedly Kidnap About 20 Lawmakers

Story by the Associated Press; curated by Dave Urbanski

UPDATE, 7:06 p.m.: Libya’s interim government has condemned an attack on parliament by militias and a claim by a group led by a renegade general that the legislative body has been suspended. Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani said that Libya “condemns expression of political opinion with armed force.”

He added that the attack Sunday on parliament by forces apparently loyal to Gen. Khalifa Hifter had nothing to do with his recent offensive in Benghazi.

Original story is below

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A group led by a renegade Libyan general said Sunday it suspended parliament after launching an attack against the legislative body.

In this image made from video provided by the Libyan national army via AP Television, smoke rises over the parliament area after troops of Gen. Khalifa Hifter targeted Islamist lawmakers and officials at the parliament in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, May 18, 2014. (Image source: AP/Libyan national army)

Gen. Mokhtar Farnana, speaking on a Libyan television channel, said a group led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter had assigned a 60-member constituent’s assembly to take over for parliament.

Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter addresses a press conference in Benghazi, Libya on Saturday, May 17, 2014. (Image source: AP/Mohammed el-Shaiky)

Farnana said Libya’s current government would act on an emergency basis. He did not elaborate. But he did say forces loyal to Hifter carried out Sunday’s attack on parliament. He also said Sunday’s attack on Libya’s parliament was not a coup, but “fighting by the people’s choice.”

“We announce to the world that the country can’t be a breeding ground or an incubator for terrorism,” said Farnana, who wore a military uniform and stood in front of Libya’s flag.

Farnana serves as the commander of the military force in Tripoli. Libya’s interim government had no immediate comment on the broadcast. It was not immediately clear where Farnana spoke from.

Sunday’s attack on parliament, in which Hifter’s forces kidnapped some 20 lawmakers and officials in an assault that threatened to further splinter a country dominated by the armed groups that overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi three years ago.

The attack, which hospital officials said killed one person and wounded nine, came after an assault Friday by Hifter’s forces on Islamist militias in the restive eastern city of Benghazi that authorities said killed 70 people. On Sunday, troops loyal to Hifter targeted the Islamist lawmakers and officials the general blames for allowing extremists to hold the country ransom, his spokesman Mohammed al-Hegazi told Libya’s al-Ahrar television station.

“This parliament is what supports these extremist Islamist entities,” al-Hegazi said. “The aim was to arrest these Islamist bodies who wear the cloak of politics.”

The fighting spread to the capital’s southern edge Sunday night and along the highway leading to the airport.

Libya’s army and police rely heavily on the country’s myriad of militias, the heavily armed groups formed around ethnic identity, hometowns and religion that formed out of the rebel factions that toppled Gadhafi. Bringing them under control has been one of the greatest challenges for Libya’s successive interim governments, one they largely failed at as militias have seized oil terminals and even kidnapped a former prime minister seemingly at will.

In the fighting Sunday, officials believe members of the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias, the largest in the capital, backed Hifter even though they operate under a government mandate. Al-Qaaqaa posted a statement on its official Facebook page saying it attacked parliament with Sawaaq because lawmakers supported “terrorism.”

The two groups previously gave parliament an ultimatum to dissolve after its mandate expired in February, threatening to detain lawmakers. They never carried out their threats but parliament eventually vowed to hold elections later this year.

Islamist-backed parliamentary head Nouri Abu Sahmein earlier told Libyan television station al-Nabaa that the militias loyal to the government had matters “under control,” and vowed to convene parliament Tuesday.

An official with the Libyan Revolution Operation Room, an umbrella group of militias groups in charge of the security in the capital, said the gunmen “kidnapped” some 20 lawmakers and government officials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists.

In this image made from video provided by the Libyan national army via AP Television, vehicles with heavy artillery of the Tripoli joint security forces move closer to the parliament building after troops of Gen. Khalifa Hifter targeted Islamist lawmakers and officials at the parliament in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, May 18, 2014. (Image source: AP/Libyan national army)

Lawmakers said security officials tried evacuate them before attackers breached the parliament, following warnings the building would be assaulted.

Libya’s parliament is divided between Islamist and non-Islamist factions, with rival militias lining up behind them. Recently, Islamists backed the naming of a new prime minister amid walkouts from non-Islamists.

Libya’s new interim prime minister has not yet named a Cabinet. However, lawmaker Khaled al-Mashri told al-Ahrar that attackers wanted to prevent lawmakers from picking a new Cabinet as a list of nominees reached legislators Sunday.

It’s not clear which militias and political leaders support Hifter, but his offensive taps into a wider disenchantment among Libyans with its virtually powerless government. Backers include members of a federalist group that had declared an autonomous eastern government and seized the region’s oil terminals and ports for months, demanding a bigger share of oil revenue.

Hamed al-Hassi, who was head of the army for the autonomous Barqa region, was a leading member of Hifter’s Benghazi offensive Friday. He backed the assault on parliament Sunday, saying power should be handed over to a civilian authority if Libya’s current interim government collapses.

“We don’t seek authority,” he said.

On Saturday, Hifter appeared before journalists in his military uniform and promised he would press on with his Benghazi offensive, despite warnings by the central government that cooperating troops will be tried. They labelled his moves a coup attempt.