Mass jailbreak comes amid protests, killings in Libya

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 July, 2013, 6:23am

More than a thousand inmates escaped a prison in Libya as protesters stormed political-party offices across the country, signs of the simmering unrest gripping a nation overrun by militias and awash in weaponry.

The mass escape from al-Kweifiya prison took place early on Saturday after a series of marches in a number of cities protested against the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been blamed for recent political killings. It was not clear whether the inmates had received inside help.

Inmates started a riot and set fires after security forces opened fire on three detainees who tried to escape the facility outside of Benghazi, a security official at al-Kweifiya prison said.

Gunmen quickly arrived at the prison after news of the riot spread, opening fire with rifles outside in a bid to free their imprisoned relatives, a Benghazi-based security official said.

Special forces later arrested 18 of the escapees, while some returned on their own, said Mohammed Hejazi, a government security official in Benghazi.

There was confusion, however, about how many prisoners broke out, with numbers ranging as high as 1,200.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan blamed the jailbreak on those living around the prison.

"The prison was [attacked] by the citizens who live nearby because they don't want a prison in their region," he said. "Special forces were present and could have got the situation under control by using their arms but they had received orders not [to use] their weapons on citizens … so the citizens opened the doors to the prisoners."

Meanwhile on Saturday, hundreds gathered in the capital Tripoli, denouncing the Friday shooting death of Abdul-Salam Al-Musmari, a well-known critic of the Brotherhood.

They set fire to tyres in the street and demanded the dissolution of Islamist parties.

The two incidents highlighted Libya's deteriorating security situation and the challenges the country faces as it tries to restore calm nearly two years after the ousting and killing of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

In Tripoli, protesters appeared to be inspired by events in neighbouring Egypt, where millions took to the streets on Friday to answer a call from the army chief, who said he wanted a mandate to stop "potential terrorism" by supporters of ousted president Mohammed Mursi, who hails from the Brotherhood.

"We don't want the Brotherhood, we want the army and the police," Libyan protesters chanted, repeating a slogan also used in Egypt.

Libya's nascent security forces are struggling to control the militias, most of whom have roots in the rebel groups that overthrew Gaddafi in 2011.

"Libya's fragile transition is at stake if political killings go unpunished," said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"This makes investigating al-Musmari's murder all the more urgent."