CAIRO – Deadly clashes erupted in the Libyan capital on Saturday between militias backed by the two rival governments, who predicted a return to violence amid a long political deadlock.
At least 23 people were killed and 140 were injured, the health ministry said. It added that 64 families were evacuated from areas around the fighting.
The escalation threatens to destroy the relative calm that Libya has enjoyed over the past two years. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising that overthrew and killed longtime autocrat Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.
One of those killed was Mustafa Baraka, a comedian known for his social media videos mocking militias and corruption. Baraka died after being shot in the chest, said Malek Merset, a spokesman for the emergency services.
Merset said emergency services were still trying to evacuate injured and civilians trapped in the fighting that broke out overnight and continued into Saturday night.
The health ministry said in a statement that hospitals and medical centers in the capital were shelled and that ambulance teams were unable to evacuate civilians, in acts that “belong to war crimes”.
Tripoli’s city council blamed the ruling political class for the deteriorating situation in the capital and urged the international community to “protect civilians in Libya”.
The violence caused widespread panic among the people of Tripoli. Images circulating online showed houses, government buildings and vehicles apparently damaged by the fighting. Other footage showed militias deploying and exchanging heavy fire across the night sky.
The UN mission in Libya said the fighting was accompanied by “indiscriminate medium and heavy shelling in civilian-populated neighborhoods” of Tripoli.
The mission called for an immediate ceasefire and called on all parties in Libya to “refrain from using any form of hate speech and inciting violence”.
The fighting pitted the militia of the Revolutionary Brigade of Tripoli, led by Haitham Tajouri, against another militia affiliated with Abdel-Ghani al-Kikli, a notorious warlord known as “Gheniwa,” according to local media. Later on Saturday, more militias joined the fighting that spread to several areas in the capital.
The government of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who is based in Tripoli, claimed that clashes broke out when one militia fired at another.
However, the fighting is most likely part of the ongoing power struggle between Dbeibah and his rival Prime Minister Fathy Bashagha, who operates out of the coastal town of Sirte.
Both Dbeibah and Bashagha are backed by militias, with the latter mobilizing in recent weeks to try to enter Tripoli to oust his rival.
An attempt in May by Bashagha to install his government in Tripoli sparked clashes that ended with his withdrawal from the capital.
US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland urged de-escalation “before things get worse” and for Libyan parties to agree on an early election date.
The report of 23 dead and 140 injured after clashes broke out in the Libyan capital first appeared on NBC News.