Fresh street fighting in Libyan capital Tripoli, after more than 40 die

Fresh clashes break out a day after militiamen and capital residents trade fire, killing 43; the gunmen must leave, beleaguered PM says

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 6:38am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 6:39am

Fresh clashes erupted in Tripoli yesterday, a day after 43 people died in some of the worst street fighting in the Libyan capital since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

More than 450 were wounded in Friday's gun battles between militiamen and armed residents, Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani said, adding the death toll was expected to rise.

The new clashes broke out as vehicles loaded with fighters from Misrata, whose militia headquarters in the capital were at the centre of Friday's fighting, headed to Tripoli from the eastern suburb of Tajura.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan appealed for "restraint and a halt to the clashes", warning the entry of more armed groups to the volatile capital could only "further complicate the situation".

"The coming hours and days will be decisive for the history of Libya and the success of the revolution," stressed Zeidan, who was himself abducted by militiamen and held for several hours last month.

Zeidan is struggling to control rival militias, Islamist militants and other former fighters who refuse to surrender their arms two years after helping to oust Gaddafi in a Nato-backed revolt.

Friday's bloodshed began when the Misrata militiamen fired at about 500 protesters demanding their eviction from the capital after they had fought rivals for control of city districts.

A witness saw an anti-aircraft cannon firing from the "Gharghur brigades" gated compound into the crowd as protesters chanted: "We don't want armed militias!"

Demonstrators, some carrying white flags, fled but then returned, heavily armed, to attack the compound, where the militiamen remained holed up until early morning as fighting continued. Rocket-propelled grenades could be heard.

Dozens of soldiers in trucks tried to separate the sides, and sealed off roads to stop more people joining the clashes.

Heavy smoke could be seen rising from the scene in the Gharghur district, where many of Gaddafi's closest collaborators used to live before he was toppled. One witness saw the dead body of a girl, aged around 12, whose head had been almost blown off.

Zeidan denounced the killing of protesters. "The demonstration was peaceful and had been permitted by the Interior Ministry, and then the protesters were fired on when they entered the Gharghur district," he said.

"The exit of armed groups from Tripoli is not something up for debate but necessary and urgently needed," he said.

Libya's turmoil and the weakness of its border controls are worrying its North African neighbours. France last week said it was considering offering more counter-terrorism training and aid to help Libya prevent militancy spilling over its frontiers.

The French intervention in neighbouring Mali this year drove some Islamist militants with links to al-Qaeda across the border into Libya's deserts.

So far, the capital has been spared the almost daily bombings and killings that plague Libya's second city, Benghazi, in the east. But when clashes between rival militias do break out, the nascent armed forces are no match for them.

The Misrata gunmen had fought twice last week with a rival group that had detained one of their members for driving a car without number plates.

On Friday, air force planes circled overhead during the clashes to ensure the militia didn not bring in reinforcements, the army said.

Strikes and armed protests around the country by militias and tribal gunmen demanding payments or more autonomy have also shut off much of the Opec member's oil output.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse