An elite Libyan unit has joined a renegade general who accuses the government of backing al-Qaeda-inspired fighters as rising lawlessness in the nation’s two largest cities edges it closer to civil war.
Colonel Wanis Abu Khamada, the commander of the country’s special forces, announced on Monday that his troops would join retired general Khalifa Haftar’s operation targeting armed groups in Benghazi, the country’s second city.
The announcement came a day after gunmen stormed the General National Congress (GNC), the country’s parliament, in southern Tripoli.
The government posted an open letter on its website suggesting that the GNC “take a recess” as a way out of the crisis.
Haftar’s forces had launched an air and ground operation against militias in Benghazi on Friday, saying they wanted to “flush the terrorists out”.
His forces mainly targeted Ansar al-Sharia, a group advocating the implementation of strict Islamic law across Libya which is designated by the US as a terrorist group. Friday’s fierce fighting killed at least 79 people in the eastern city.
With the interim authorities failing to build a regular army and police, militias have gradually gained ascendancy since ousting longtime leader Mouammar Gaddafi.
Haftar, who defected from Libya’s army in the eighties after its unsuccessful war with Chad, heads a group called the “Libyan National Army (LNA)”.
Abu Khamada said his unit would join the LNA “with all our men and weapons”.
His forces have come under regular attack in Benghazi by presumed hard-line militias, and dozens of his men have been killed. It was in Benghazi that the uprising erupted in 2011.
After Sunday’s attack on parliament, a colonel claiming to speak on behalf of the government’s army declared that the GNC had been suspended.
The government had no immediate comment but on Monday suggested the GNC “take a recess after the vote on the 2014 budget and until new parliamentary elections” within three months to avoid civil war.
Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani said two people were killed and 55 wounded in Sunday’s clashes between rival militias in southern Tripoli but that the violence had “no real link” to events in Benghazi.
Witnesses said the Tripoli assailants belonged to the powerful Zintan brigades that have attacked the GNC in the past.
The Zintan brigades control areas in southern Tripoli around the airport.
MPs were evacuated as heavy gunfire erupted after a convoy of armoured vehicles headed for the GNC. Gunmen set fire to an annex of the parliament building before withdrawing towards the airport.
Haftar, accused by the government of staging a coup, has said he is preparing a new assault.
“Each battle is followed by a regrouping of units. And we will return in force,” he said. “Our operation is not a coup and we do not plan to seize power.”
US on alert
Haftar shares the Zintan militias’ hostility towards the interim parliament, saying he does not recognise the GNC whose “mandate has already expired and who are rejected by the people”.
The interim parliament – in which Islamists are strongly represented – sparked outrage earlier this year when it extended its own mandate until December.
The regular army says Haftar is backed by tribes, army defectors and former rebels who oppose the interim authorities.
In the face of the growing anarchy, the US has reportedly increased the number of Marines and aircraft stationed in Sicily who could be called upon to evacuate its citizens from the US embassy in Tripoli.
US officials, speaking to the Reuter’s news agency on conditions of anonymity, said on Monday that about 60 more Marines and another four aircraft were being sent to Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily from their base in Spain.
The Marines in Sigonella are part of a crisis response unit focused on embassy security that was created after the attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi in 2012 that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
Saudi Arabia has already closed its embassy and evacuated diplomatic staff on Monday.