An attempt by one of Libya’s rival prime ministers to seat his government in the capital of Tripoli triggered clashes Tuesday between competing militias, forcing the newly appointed premier to leave the city. The development underscored the fragility of the situation in the war-wracked country.
Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha’s office said he had arrived in Tripoli with a number of Cabinet ministers early Tuesday — three months after his appointment to lead an interim government.
The move was likely to fuel more tensions between Libya’s rival administrations and in the morning, local media reported clashes between different militias and rival forces supporting the two sides in central Tripoli and elsewhere in the city.
There was no comment from the government of embattled Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who is based in Tripoli.
Residents reported hearing heavy gunfire in different parts of the city. “There was shooting and gunfire everywhere,” said Salim Ahmed, a school teacher. Some Tripoli schools suspended classes.
Bashagha’s office said he and his ministers left Tripoli later Tuesday “for the sake of the security and safety of citizens and to stop the bloodshed.”
The U.N. special adviser on Libya, Stephanie Williams, urged calm and for rival parties to engage in talks to resolve their disputes.
“Conflict cannot be solved with violence, but with dialogue and mediation,” she tweeted, adding that the United Nations is ready to host all parties “in helping Libya find a genuine, consensual way forward towards stability and elections.”
Bashagha, a former interior minister, was named prime minister by the country’s east-based parliament in February. But Dbeibah, a wealthy businessman, has refused to step down, insisting he will hand over power only to an elected government. Both hail from the powerful western city of Misrata.
Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya researcher, said the violence that unfolded during Bashagha’s “brief presence inside Tripoli” reflected his “clear failure.” Dbeibah enjoys the support of well-financed armed groups — not only in the capital but also in Misrata — that are fierce opponents of east-based military commander Khalifa Hifter, with whom Bashagha is now aligned, said Harchaoui.
The latest violence is likely to undermine ongoing talks in the Egyptian capital between east-based parliament and the High Council of State, an advisory body from western Libya, on constitutional amendments for elections.
The U.S. Embassy urged Libya’s rivals to agree on a “constitutional basis leading to presidential and parliamentary elections in a realistic but aggressive timeframe.”
“The only viable path to legitimate leadership is by allowing Libyans to choose their leaders. The constitutional talks underway in Cairo are now more important than ever,” it tweeted.
Over the weekend, rival militias clashed in Tripoli’s neighborhood of Janzour. No casualties were reported but local authorities said there was damage to infrastructure, including a power plant.
The U.N. mission in Libya condemned the clashes, and said they involved “indiscriminate fire and the alleged use of heavy weapons” in the densely populated neighborhood.
Lawmakers have argued that Dbeibah’s mandate expired after Libya failed to hold presidential elections in December as planned under a U.N.-brokered agreement. Dbeibah was appointed last year in a U.N.-led process to lead the country through the elections.
The failure to hold the vote was a major blow to international efforts to end decade of chaos in Libya. It opened a new chapter in Libya’s long-running political impasse, with rival governments claiming power after tentative steps toward unity in the past year.
The impasse worsened over the past two months and the closure of oil facilities, including Libya’s largest oil field, in areas controlled by Hifter’s forces was likely a move to deprive Debeibah’s government of funds and boost his rival.
The oil-rich country has been wrecked by conflict since the NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Libya has since for years been split between rival administrations in the east and west, each supported by different militias and foreign governments.