Libya’s defense minister has been relieved from his post following deadly clashes in the capital Tripoli, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said in a televised news conference on Thursday.
“He previously submitted his resignation but we asked him to stay,” Zeidan said, referring to when Defense Minister Mohammed al-Bargathi submitted his resignation last month.
“But after what happened yesterday, it has been decided that he will be relieved from his position. We will name a new minister as soon as possible.”
Tension was palpable in the Libyan capital on Thursday, a day after deadly fighting broke out between groups of ex-rebels, highlighting the country’s continuing insecurity nearly two years after dictator Muammar Gaddafi fell.
Five people were killed and nearly 100 were wounded in clashes between rival armed militias in Tripoli on Wednesday, Health Minister Nurideen Doghman said.
“In total 97 people were wounded and five were killed in yesterday’s clashes,” Doghman said on state television.
Loud explosions and gunfire rocked Tripoli late into the night – the second day of violence in the city, highlighting the rivalries between heavily armed groups that have plagued the country since the 2011 uprising against Gaddafi.
Much of Libya’s recent unrest has centered on the eastern city of Benghazi, the cradle of the uprising, where attacks blamed on Islamists have targeted both the authorities and Western interests.
But it now seems to be spreading to Tripoli, where brigades of ex-rebels remain entrenched despite government efforts to disarm them and impose its authority.
Since the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, militia groups, mostly ex-rebels, have managed border controls, prisons, strategic facilities in the country and vital institutions.
Coming from different parts of the country, representing different tribes and with varying ideologies, they have received salaries and perks from the authorities, and some have even benefited from smuggling and extortion.
Deadly events on Tuesday and Wednesday epitomized the sense of lawlessness that surrounds them.
A group of armed men from the city of Zintan who had been guarding oil facilities in the southern desert, attacked the Tripoli headquarters of the petroleum industry security force on Tuesday.
They had been replaced by another group and wanted their jobs back.
Another “brigade” of ex-rebels, loosely attached to interior ministry’s high security commission, intervened in the fighting. Five people were killed and five of the Zintanis seized.
On Wednesday, armed Zintanis attacked the Tripoli headquarters of the brigade, located in the capital’s Abu Slim district. They ransacked it and freed their comrades.
Five people were also killed in that fighting and another 97 wounded, the health ministry said.
The interim head of Libya’s army, General Salem al-Konidi, said “we tried to intervene, but our resources did not allow it”.
“The government refuses to equip the army,” Konidi told Libya al-Ahrar television.
On Thursday, military police remained deployed at key points along the airport road near Abu Slim, having arrived during the previous days clashes.
While there were no outright threats, there was a sense among people in the city that there could be more inter-militia clashes.
Konidi also disowned the Zintanis, who are officially attached to the defense ministry, saying “forces that don’t follow our orders don’t belong to us”.
The government limited itself to issuing a statement overnight in which it regretted the “deplorable acts” and affirmed its intention to enforce its decision to remove “illegal militias” from the capital.
That decision had been taken by the General National Congress (GNC), the country’s highest legislative and political authority, after deadly fighting in Benghazi three weeks ago.
And the government said on Thursday that, during the course of the day, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan would speak about the latest clashes.
But while violence hit Tripoli, there were deadly attacks elsewhere in the country.
Overnight, three car bombs exploded in Sebha, 700 kilometers south of the capital. Two people died and 17 were wounded in the blasts, which came at roughly half-hour intervals, officials said.
And in Benghazi on Wednesday, an army officer died after a bomb placed in his official vehicle exploded.
The death of Lieutenant Colonel Jemaa al-Misrati came a day after gunmen killed six soldiers at a checkpoint south of Sirte, the late Gaddafi’s hometown.