At least 31 people were killed and hundreds were wounded in clashes Friday following protests by Tripoli residents demanding that Libyan militias leave the capital. The armed groups are a holdover from the 2011 uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
At least 31 people were killed and almost 400 wounded in gun battles between Libyan militiamen and armed residents in Tripoli on Friday in some of the worst street fighting in the capital since the overthrow of former leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Friday's bloodshed began when militiamen from the city of Misrata opened fire on about 500 protesters who had gathered outside the militia's headquarters, some of them carrying white flags, to demand their eviction from the capital.
Tripoli local council leader Sadat al-Badri told AFP that the militia fired at the demonstrators from inside their headquarters.
A militia leader told private TV channel Al-Naba that the demonstrators had opened fire first.
A Reuters reporter saw an anti-aircraft cannon firing from the militia's gated compound into the crowd as protesters chanted: "We don't want armed militias!"
Demonstrators fled but then returned, heavily armed, to attack the compound, where the militiamen remained holed up until early morning as fighting continued. Rocket-propelled grenades could be heard.
Dozens of soldiers in trucks tried to separate the sides, and sealed off roads to stop more people joining the clashes.
The protest, organised by the local council, had been backed by imams at Friday prayers and by Libya's mufti, the highest religious authority.
'Armed groups must leave'
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan responded to the violence by demanding that all militias "without exception" leave Tripoli. "The demonstration was peaceful and had been permitted by the interior ministry, and then the protesters were fired on when they entered the Gharghur district," he said.
"The exit of armed groups from Tripoli is not something up for debate but necessary and urgently needed," he told Reuters TV and the Ahrar Libya channel in an interview.
But Friday's clashes underscored how overwhelmed the country’s fledging military is in the face of the ex-rebels, who have also shut down Libya's oil exports for months.
The militias are holdovers from the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi and are now a powerful force in the increasingly lawless North African country. Two years after the overthrow, former fighters from both sides are refusing to surrender their arms.
Late into the night heavy smoke could be seen rising from the scene in the Gharghur district, where many of Gaddafi's closest collaborators used to live before the uprising.
A Reuters reporter saw the dead body of a girl, aged around 12, whose head had been almost blown off.
Libya's turmoil and the weakness of its border controls are worrying its North African neighbours. France this week said it was considering offering more counter-terrorism training and aid to help Libya prevent militancy spilling over its frontiers.
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The French intervention in neighbouring Mali this year drove some Islamist militants with links to al Qaeda across the border into Libya's lawless southern deserts, where the central government has little or no say.
Friday's march was sparked by violence on November 7 in which the Misrata Nosoor Battalian militia lost one its leaders, Nuri Friwan, when he was fatally wounded in fighting at a checkpoint manned by other ex-rebels.
Two other people were killed in fighting sparked by his death.
On Friday, air force planes circled overhead during the clashes. "We want to make sure the militias don't bring in any reinforcements," said army spokesman Ali al-Sheikhi. Pro-government militias set up checkpoints on the coastal road outside Tripoli to Misrata to prevent fighters entering Tripoli.
So far, the capital has been spared the almost daily bombings and killings that plague Libya's second city, Benghazi, in the east. But when clashes between rival militias do break out, the nascent armed forces are no match for them.
One Western diplomat said the situation was becoming "increasingly critical," and the British, French, Italian and US embassies issued a joint statement calling for Libyans to "put aside their differences."
Strikes and armed protests around the country by militia and tribal gunmen demanding payments or more autonomy have also shut much of the OPEC member's oil output, depriving the government of its main source of income.
The authorities have tried to defuse the threat of the militias by placing them on the government payroll and assigning them to provide security.
But the gunmen often remain loyal mostly to their own commanders and fight for control of local areas, especially their weapons or drug smuggling rackets, or to settle personal feuds.
Zeidan was himself briefly abducted in October by a militia group on the government payroll, underscoring the lack of both security and authority in the country.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)
Date created : 2013-11-15