BENGHAZI, Libya – More than three-quarters of Libya’s newly elected parliament met for the first time Saturday in a city chosen by a prominent anti-Islamist politician, likely signalling a swing against Islamists and extremist militias amid violence unseen since the 2011 civil war that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The lawmakers met in Tobrouk as rival militias battled for control over the international airport in the capital, Tripoli, with their fire setting more oil depots ablaze. Meanwhile in Libya’s second-largest city of Benghazi, forces loyal to a renegade general were dealt heavy blow after the Islamist militias overran several army bases and took control of the city.
The violence, which has killed more than 200 people and wounded almost 900 in weeks of fighting, has sent diplomats, thousands of foreign workers and Libyans fleeing for their lives and presents the greatest challenge for a country still largely at war with itself.
The meeting Saturday saw 152 lawmakers gather in Tobrouk, a city in eastern Libya near the Egyptian border, according to the official Facebook page of Libya’s House of Representatives. Abu Bakr Baiera, the anti-Islamist lawmaker who presided over Saturday’s session, decided to postpone the official opening until more lawmakers arrive.
The presence of that many members of parliament — all elected as independents — suggests most lawmakers are not affiliated to the Islamist factions that dominated Libya’s outgoing interim parliament or support the Islamic extremist-led militia campaigns in Tripoli or Benghazi. The last session suffered from political infighting, as well as violent attacks that saw lawmakers kidnapped and parliament itself besieged.
It also failed to rein in Libya’s warring militias, made of the rebel forces that toppled Gadhafi and armed with heavy weaponry that outgun its weakened police and military. The parliament also passed divisive laws that caused deep rifts among Libyans and failed to draft a new constitution.
Baiera chose to hold the meeting in Tobrouk after Benghazi purportedly fell into the hands of Islamic extremist militias. Those militias recently drove out army troops loosely allied with renegade Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who is leading a campaign against them.
Benghazi is “outside the control of the security apparatus,” making it impossible to safeguard lawmakers there, according to a letter that acting Interior Minister Tarek al-Barassi sent to parliament.
Baiera’s decision also defied outgoing head of parliament Nouri Abu Sahmein, an Islamist-leaning politician, who wanted the meeting held in Tripoli.
Faraj Nejim, a lawmaker and head of a committee responsible for moving the parliament to its new venue, told The Associated Press that some of the lawmakers who didn’t attend the session are from the city of Misrata — known as a stronghold of Islamic factions.
In the capital, an Islamist-backed militia from the coastal city of Misrata continued to battle an anti-Islamist militia from the mountain town of Zintan over control of the airport.
On Saturday, flames rose from giant oil depots near Tripoli’s airport after shells fired by the rival militias hit tanks there. That comes after similar crossfire set three oil depots ablaze last week, which burned out of control for days.
Firefighters left the blaze Saturday after coming under fire. An official at the Libyan National Safety Agency called the situation “very dangerous.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
The violence across Libya has forced diplomats to flee and close their embassies while foreign nationals and Libyan citizens streamed into neighbouring Tunisia searching for safety. On Saturday, both Britain and Poland were among the latest embassies to suspend work in Tripoli. A Greek navy frigate also evacuated its embassy staff and nearly 200 people from Greece, China and other countries.
Tunisia also opened its main border crossing with Libya after temporarily closing it a day earlier, allowing thousands fleeing Libya to enter the country. Tunisia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also announced that it would be establishing flights with Egypt to evacuate some 6,000 Egyptian nationals fleeing the fighting.
Thousands of Egyptians, along with many other nationalities, are stranded at the Tunisian-Libyan border seeking to flee the fighting. Clashes have already erupted between Egyptians and border guards resulting in two deaths on Thursday.
Tunisia has insisted that all those fleeing Libya be repatriated to their home countries immediately to avoid the prolonged refugee situation that took place during Libya’s 2011 civil war.
Awash with weapons and militants, Libya has posed a threat to neighbouring countries, including Egypt. On Saturday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi stressed the need for Libya to confront its challenges, saying that “the militia fighting must stop.”
“There must be a confrontation to the situation taking shape on the ground,” el-Sissi said during a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Cairo. He didn’t elaborate.
Associated Press writer Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis, Tunisia, contributed to this report.