Forces loyal to a rogue Libyan general attacked the country's parliament yesterday, forcing lawmakers to flee an assault his spokesman said targeted Islamists there who protect the extremist militias now plaguing the nation.
The attack was met with resistance from other troops, Mohammed al-Hegazi, a spokesman for General Khalifa Hifter, told Libya's al-Ahrar TV. Gunfire near the parliament could be heard for kilometres around.
A security official said the attackers also shelled a nearby military base controlled by an Islamist militia.
Hifter is carrying out an offensive against Islamist militias in Benghazi, the country's second-largest city in the east. He said the central government and parliament had no mandate and vowed to press on with his operation after authorities called it a coup.
"This parliament is what supports these extremist Islamist entities," Hegazi told the TV station. "The aim was to arrest these Islamist bodies who wear the cloak of politics."
Lawmakers said security officials evacuated them from the building out of fear it would be stormed.
Libya's parliament is divided between Islamist and non-Islamist forces who have bickered over appointing a new government and holding new elections. Recently, Islamist forces backed the naming of a new prime minister, amid walkouts from the non-Islamist groups. The new interim prime minister has not yet named a cabinet.
Militias were seen gathering near the parliament. The security official said that lawmakers received warnings ahead of the attack that the building would be assaulted. The bases of the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias are located near the parliament. They both operate under the government's mandate but back non-Islamist political forces.
Roads leading to parliament were later sealed off, as Tripoli residents rushed home.
Militias have carried out several attacks on parliament, including on March 2 when two deputies were shot and wounded.
The fighting that broke out in Benghazi on Friday killed 70 people, Libya's health ministry said yesterday. Benghazi, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled Libya's late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, was quiet yesterday, though its airport remained closed for a second day.
Libya's weak central government describes the offensive by forces loyal to Hifter, which includes air support, as tantamount to a coup. The violence there and in the capital, Tripoli, shows how precarious government control remains three years after the West helped topple Gaddafi in 2011.
Libya's military banned flights on Saturday to Benghazi, and said in a statement that it would target any military aircraft flying over the city.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse