4th November (Reuters)
Rival Libyan militias fired guns and rocket-propelled grenades at each other in Tripoli on Sunday and set fire to a former intelligence building in one of the worst breakdowns in security in the capital since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
At least five people were wounded and a stray bullet entered a hospital in the city centre, where residents rushed to arm themselves, saying calls to police had gone unheeded. After more than 12 hours, the army moved in.
The violence underscored the challenges faced by Libya‘s first freely elected government, which was approved last week, in reining in the militias that gained power during the conflict that ended Gaddafi’s 42-year rule a year ago and holding together a country riven by regional, sectarian and clan divisions.
By early afternoon, a building belonging to the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), set up last year to try to regulate armed groups, was set alight and looted by members of a militia faction, witnesses said.
The fight erupted just after midnight, according to residents in the southern district of Sidi Khalifa. The militias involved are both affiliated to the SSC, an umbrella group for various armed groups that refused to join the police or army saying these were still run by Gaddafi loyalists.
Civilians blocked the street where the fighting raged to prevent cars entering, and many went home to get their own weapons. “We called the police early in the morning to help us stop the shooting, but no one came,” said Khaled Mohamed.
At the nearby Tripoli central hospital, doctors and nurses ran for cover. Dr Khaled Ben Nour said five casualties had been brought in. “We have real patients with real needs. These rogue militias need to leave us in peace so we can do our jobs,” he said.
Some fighters said the clash was over the detention of a militiaman, while others said the SSC headquarters had been occupied by a militia called Support Unit No 8, led by Mohamed al-Warfali.
Rival militias, also belonging to the SSC, fired at the building from a former post office. “Mohamed al-Warfali and his lawless group of men have occupied the SSC building and refuse to come out,” said militia member Mohamed al-Himrazy, who accused Warfali’s group of breaking SSC rules.The clash highlighted the latent tensions between Libya’s semi-official militias, which hold a great deal of power and have loyalties sometimes at odds with those of the government.
“The government needs to find a solution for this security mess,” said resident Khaled Ahmed. “It’s been two years since the revolution and there is still no security. They either need to find a solution or we take to the streets again.”
Apart from draining public finances, SSC members have been accused of kidnappings and intimidation across Libya. For their part, the armed revolutionaries who fought the war feel unrepresented by the elected civilian membersauthorities.
Just over a mile from the gun battle, members of the general national congress debated whether the new government should be sworn in on Thursday and whether they should move to a different city because of recurrent attacks on their building.