Libyan capital rocked by gunfire, explosions; two killed

TRIPOLI Wed May 21, 2014 10:42am EDT

1 of 2. A view of the damage caused after explosions that took place at midnight, in the Salaheddin district of Tripoli May 21, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Ismail Zitouny

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - At least two people were killed when heavy fighting erupted near the Libyan capital of Tripoli on Wednesday, two days after gunmen stormed parliament in some of the city's worst violence since the 2011 war.

Residents reported several loud explosions near the al-Yarmouk barracks in the Salaheddin district. Gunfire and explosions later appeared to die down.

Heavy fighting involving anti-aircraft batteries also broke out near an army camp in Tajoura, an eastern suburb. "We're hearing really loud explosions and gunshots near the camp, but we don't know who is shooting," a Tajoura resident said.

It was unclear who was involved in the latest violence, which killed at least two people from Mali, a health ministry source said. Other parts of the capital appeared to be quiet.

In addition, Libya's top naval commander, General Hasssan Abu Shanaq, survived an assassination attempt by unknown gunmen as he was travelling to work, a spokesman for the chief of staff said.

In the eastern city of Benghazi, gunmen killed a Chinese engineer on Tuesday after kidnapping him from his worksite and then dumping his body, according to a security source in the eastern city.

The engineer was one of three colleagues at a Chinese construction company who were all abducted from a worksite, the Chinese embassy said on Wednesday, according to China's official press agency, XinHua. He was later found shot and died in hospital, XinHua reported. His two colleagues were released.

Militants around Benghazi have targeted foreigners in the past, including an attack on the U.S. consulate in 2012 in which U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died.

Since Libya's 2011 war ended Muammar Gaddafi's one-man rule, the country's new institutions have struggled to gain popular backing and to make progress towards full democracy. But the central government has been unable to control the brigades and militias who helped to topple Gaddafi. They are now defying state authority to make their own demands.

Tripoli has been calmer in the past two days, after militiamen stormed the General National Congress (GNC), Libya's parliament, on Sunday and fought for six hours with other armed groups on the airport road. The militiamen claimed loyalty to former army general Khalifa Haftar.

On Friday, Haftar started what he called a military campaign against Islamist militants in Benghazi in the east. He also later claimed responsibility for the attack on parliament in Tripoli.

Several military units have joined him, threatening to split the nascent regular forces and network of different militia. The militia are rivals for influence and are loosely aligned on opposing sides with Islamist and anti-Islamist political forces.

Western governments are concerned Libya's instability may worsen and spill over into its North African neighbors, who are still emerging from the political unrest following the 2011 Arab Spring revolts.

POLITICAL BATTLE

In a parallel political battle over who controls the OPEC producer, Libya's government put more pressure on parliament to suspend work until parliamentary elections are held in June.

The cabinet has called on local councils across Libya to support a proposal that the GNC halt work until an upcoming national vote, according to a statement. It also wants to repeat the election of the prime minister.

The government sent the proposal to the GNC on Monday, in an effort to force lawmakers to hand over power. Many Libyans blame political infighting in parliament for the country's bumpy transition since the 2011 war.

"We urge all council leaders to study the initiative as soon as possible," the cabinet said in a statement released on Wednesday.

Businessman Ahmed Maiteeq was named as the new premier two weeks ago, in a chaotic vote disputed by many lawmakers. But he comes from Misrata, a western city with strong links to the Muslim Brothers - a no-go for fiercely anti-Islamist militias in eastern and western Libya.

Haftar and other militias have demanded that parliament step down. But Islamist-leaning brigades and the Muslim Brotherhood have called for militias to protect the government institutions.

The national election commission proposed late on Sunday holding parliamentary elections on June 25, an apparent attempt to ease growing tensions between the two camps.

Parliament is split between Islamists and more moderate forces, as well along tribal lines. It bowed to public pressure and said in February it would hold early elections.

(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami, Feras Bosalum and Ulf Laessing; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Patrick Markey, Larry King)

(This story corrects 7th paragraph to show statement was issued on Wednesday.)

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