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Militia clash in Libya capital over chief's death

  • Article by: ESAM MOHAMED
  • Associated Press
  • November 7, 2013 - 5:00 PM

TRIPOLI, Libya — A heavily armed militia roared into Libya's capital late Thursday, exchanged gunfire in the streets killing one person and others to run for their lives as militiamen fought over the death of their commander.

The clashes are part of a wave of unrest washing over Libya, two years after the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Earlier in the day, militia fighters took control of a natural gas complex in western Libya, according to an employee there, in an attempt to pressure the country's interim parliament to give their ethnic group better representation on a panel writing a new constitution.

Dozens of militiamen, some riding in pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, others with rocket propelled grenades came from the western city of Misrata to attack a rival militia in Tripoli, witnesses said. The clashes forced drivers to abandon their cars in the middle of the road and flee for their lives. The heavy gunfire rattled residents, who closed shops and fled their apartments after bullets struck their buildings.

A medical official said that one person was killed and 11 injured including an old woman whose apartment was hit with an RPG round. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

The attackers belonged to al-Nassour militia group. They came to seek revenge for death of a militia commander Nouri Firyaoun Thursdsay. Firyaoun had been wounded on Monday in clashes in Tripoli between his group and the Souk al-Joumma, named after the neighborhood in Tripoli where Thursday's fighting took place.

Authorities in Tripoli could not be immediately reached for comment late Thursday, though such attacks have become a routine occurrence in the lawless country. Police and security forces remain scattered and disorganized, unable to stand up to the heavily armed militias now prowling the country.

Early Thursday morning, about 50 Berber militiamen stormed the Mellitah Oil and Gas complex near Zwara, some 110 kilometers (70 miles) from Tripoli, an official at the complex said. They demanded the complex close and stop exporting gas to Italy, the official said. Employees at the plant negotiated with the rebels through the day, telling them any shutdown would take time, the official said.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.

The complex is a joint venture between Libya's National Oil Corp. and Italian oil firm Eni SpA. An Eni spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Nearly two years after toppling Gadhafi, Libya has fallen hostage to a large number of militiamen struggling for power and financial interests. Eastern militias have taken over oil export terminals, deeply cutting into Libya's oil production and exports - the backbone of its economy. Production has dropped from 1.4 million barrels a day to few hundred thousand.

Gadhafi suppressed the Berber ethnic group, which represents nearly 20 percent of Libya's nearly 6 million citizens. The Berbers already have called for boycotting an election to pick the 60-member panel rewriting the constitution. They have six seats in panel now. They want either a bigger representation or guarantees that their rights, language and culture are preserved in the new constitution.

The official at the gas complex said the Berbers took over the plant because of their opposition to the constitutional panel's makeup.

Militiamen have a deadline at the end of the year to either formally join the regular military or police, as the government says it will stop paying for their services otherwise. Previous attempts to fold militias into the security forces only led to further empowering the militias.

Teachers also ended a three-day strike Thursday to demand pay increases. Their labor action shut down 95 percent of the country's schools, said Mohammed Kashlaf, an education ministry official. Earlier this week, striking teachers in the western city of Zawiya briefly blocked an oil refinery.

© 2014 Star Tribune