Armed group forces closure of Libyan Interior Ministry

TRIPOLI Tue Jul 2, 2013 9:24pm EDT

1 of 3. Onlookers gather around the wreckage of a car, which exploded near members of a special forces unit, in Benghazi, July 3, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - An armed group forced the closure of Libya's Interior Ministry on Tuesday, emptying the building of officials before leaving the scene, police said.

An Interior Ministry source said the group was demanding the resignation of the minister because of the government's reliance on some militias for security, but this could not immediately be verified.

"An unknown group dressed in fatigues arrived and demanded that we close the Interior Ministry," a police officer said. The armed group said it wanted police and army to be in charge of security, he added.

Tuesday's incident happened in the evening when there were few people inside the building, said the Interior Ministry source, who was not on the scene but familiar with the matter.

"There were not many guards inside, so to avoid any clashes, the ministry was closed," he said.

Asked what the group wanted, he said: "They were calling for the minister to resign because of his dependence on" a force known as the Supreme Security Committee.

The SSC, which says it is aligned with the Interior Ministry, was created after the country's 2011 war. The SSC is composed of militiamen, who are often better armed and more powerful than the police.

Several police guards said the armed group was retreating when members of the SSC arrived on the scene. "Both sides fired shots in the air, before retreating," one of the police officers said.

A Reuters reporter on the scene later saw only police guarding the empty compound. Large piles of sand stood before the front gate.

Last week, some of the SSC's members clashed with a rival militia in Tripoli, highlighting the rivalries between heavily armed groups roaming the country since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.

That violence, in which 10 people were killed and more than 100 injured, led to the removal of the defense minister.

Resentment against Libya's myriad militias has been growing in recent months. But the central government, whose forces are too weak to maintain security, has found itself having to co-opt or license some of the most powerful groups to maintain a semblance of order, while shutting down some others.

In a separate incident in the eastern city of Benghazi, at least seven people were wounded when a car bomb exploded at a checkpoint manned by special military forces. Mohammed al-Hajazi, spokesman for the office that oversees security in Benghazi, said four soldiers and at least three civilians were wounded.

(Reporting by Ghaith Shennib; additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Tripoli and Feras Bosalum in Benghazi; Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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