Deadly clashes broke out between rival Libyan militias in the centre of Tripoli with the sound of gunfire echoing through the heavily populated part of the capital city threatening two years of relative peace.
The violence on Saturday comes in the wake of a build-up of rival forces in Tripoli over the past week as they jostle for power while the North African country remains divided between rival administrations in the east and the west.
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At least 12 people were killed and 87 others wounded in the fighting, according to the health ministry in the capital, Tripoli.
The country’s democratic transition was delayed after the presidential elections scheduled for last December were postponed indefinitely.
“This is horrible. My family and I could not sleep because of the clashes. The sound was too loud and too frightening,” said Abdulmenam Salem, a central Tripoli resident. “We stayed awake in case we had to leave quickly. It’s a terrible feeling.”
There was no immediate comment from the interior and health ministries about the fighting, which paused in the morning before resuming. Tripoli University said it was suspending classes because of the fighting.
Ali, a 23-year-old student who declined to give his surname, said he fled his apartment along with his family during the night after bullets struck their building. “We could not stay any longer and survive,” he said.
Tensions have risen after Fathi Bashagha, backed by the east-based parliament, was sworn in as prime minister in February amid calls for Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, head of the transitional government based in Tripoli, The Government of National Unity (GNU) , to cede power.
The United Nations has voiced concern after the Tobruk-based parliament voted to install Bashagha as prime minister.
Under a UN deal signed last year, Dbeibah was expected to hand over power after the December presidential elections. Dbeibah has refused to step aside, pledging to hold on to power until elections take place.
A GNU statement said the latest clashes in Tripoli were triggered by fighters aligned with Bashagha firing on a convoy in the capital while other pro-Bashagha units massed outside the city. It accused Bashagha of backing out of talks to resolve the crisis.
Bashagha’s administration said in a statement it never rejected talks and its overtures were rejected by Dbeibah. It did not directly respond to the assertion it was linked to the clashes.
Local media reported houses and cars were damaged in the violence between fighters from rival militia leaders – Haitham al-Tajouri and Abdel-Ghani al-Kikli.
A spokesman for the ambulance and emergency services in Tripoli, Osama Ali, held parties involved in the clashes responsible for the safety of civilians, reported local media. He called on those involved to cease all attacks.
Ali told Al-Ahrar television an unknown number of civilians had been wounded but his service was “having difficulties moving around”.
The UN’s Libya mission called for “an immediate cessation of hostilities”, citing “ongoing armed clashes including indiscriminate medium and heavy shelling in civilian-populated neighbourhoods”, which it said damaged hospitals.
The US embassy in Libya said it was “very concerned” about the fighting.
‘Situation still tense’
Al Jazeera’s Malik Traina, reporting from Tripoli, said a group affiliated with Prime Minister Dbeibah stormed a military base belonging to another armed group affiliated with the parallel government of Bashagha.
“Clashes ensued for several hours and we are hearing that at least two people were killed and dozens were injured but that number may rise,” said Traina, adding health officials were not able to reach the areas where the clashes occurred.
“The situation is still tense. We can hear gunfire echoing throughout the city.”
— Libya Al-Ahrar English (@LibyaAhrarEN) August 27, 2022
Local media reported the coastal road linking the cities of Al-Khoms and Zlitan was closed in anticipation of the movement of forces affiliated with Bashagha from Misrata towards Tripoli.
Last month, the most deadly clashes between rival groups in Tripoli since 2020 left 16 people dead, including a child.
Oil-rich Libya has been wracked by conflict since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.