TRIPOLI, Libya — An al-Qaeda-inspired group in Libya said Monday it will fight troops loyal to a renegade general behind an attack on the country’s parliament the day before and join forces with Islamic militias who were targeted by the general’s secular followers.
The announcement by the influential Lions of Monotheism Group further adds to the quagmire in Libya, three years after the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
On Sunday, forces loyal to Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a former rebel in the fight against Gadhafi, stormed the parliament in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, saying they were suspending the house in a struggle against Islamist lawmakers and officials whom they blame for allowing extremists to hold the country ransom.
The attack saw militia members backed by truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, mortars and rocket fire raid the parliament building in the heart of Tripoli, sending lawmakers fleeing for their lives as gunmen ransacked the legislature.
The brazen assault — in which two people reportedly died and more than 50 were wounded — was a significant challenge to the country’s weak central government.
In a video on militant websites, the Lions of Monotheism Group said Hifter’s troops also attacked Islamic militias in skirmishes elsewhere in Tripoli on Sunday and would be punished for this.
“You have entered a battle you will lose,” says a masked militant in the video, identifying himself as Abu Musab al-Arabi.
After ransacking the parliament, Hifter’s forces pulled out late Sunday. For a while, fighting appeared concentrated around the road to the city’s airport and its southern outskirts.
By Monday morning, gunfire along the airport highway had died down and a tentative calm returned to the city.
Authorities seemed determined to convey a message of business-as-usual. Libyan news agency LANA cited the Ministry of Education as denying that high school end-of-tern exams were suspended. The ministry urged students to go to school as normal.
Libya’s interim government condemned the attack on parliament but largely ignored the declaration by followers of Hifter, a one-time rebel commander who said the U.S. had backed his efforts to topple Gadhafi in the 1990s.
The attack in Tripoli followed assaults Friday by Hifter’s forces on Islamist militias in the restive eastern city of Benghazi, which authorities said killed 70 people.
Libyan officials believe members of the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias — the largest in Tripoli — backed Hifter, even though they operate under a government mandate.
Since Gadhafi’s overthrow, Libya’s army and police have relied on the country’s myriad of militias, the heavily armed groups formed around ethnic identity, hometowns and religion that emerged from the rebel factions that toppled Gadhafi.
Bringing the militias 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.
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 in Sunday’s “kidnapped” some 20 lawmakers and government officials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.
However, the abduction could not immediately be confirmed and LANA made no mention of any officials being seized.
Libya’s legislature 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, who said the new government would be illegitimate.
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 revenues.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.