TRIPOLI, Libya – Forces apparently loyal to a renegade Libyan general said they suspended parliament Sunday after earlier leading a military assault against lawmakers, directly challenging the legitimacy of the country's weak central government three years after the overthrow of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Libya's leadership condemned the attack and vowed to carry on.
A commander in the military police in Libya read a statement announcing the suspension on behalf of a group led by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a one-time rebel commander who said the U.S. backed his efforts topple Qaddafi in the 1990s. Hours earlier, militia members backed by truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, mortars and rocket fire attacked parliament, sending lawmakers fleeing for their lives as gunmen ransacked the legislature.
Gen. Mokhtar Farnana, speaking on a Libyan television channel on behalf of Hifter's group, said it assigned a 60-member constituent's assembly to take over for parliament. Farnana said Libya's current government would act on as an emergency Cabinet, without elaborating.
Farnana, who is in charge of prisons operated by the military police, said forces loyal to Hifter carried out Sunday's attack on parliament. He also said Sunday's attack on Libya's parliament was not a coup, but "fighting by the people's choice."
"We announce to the world that the country can't be a breeding ground or an incubator for terrorism," said Farnana, who wore a military uniform and sat in front of Libya's flag.
Early Monday morning, Libya's interim government condemned the attack on parliament and largely ignored the declaration by the general's group.
"The government condemns the expression of political opinion through the use of armed force," Libyan Justice Minister Salah al-Marghani said in a statement. "It calls for an immediate end of the use the military arsenal ... and calls on all sides to resort to dialogue and reconciliation."
Militias that backed the country's interim government manned checkpoints around the capital late Sunday. Hifter's forces in Tripoli appeared concentrated around the road to the city's airport and its southern outskirts.
The attack on parliament, which al-Marghani said killed two people and wounded more than 50, came after an assault Friday by Hifter's forces on Islamist militias in the restive eastern city of Benghazi that authorities said killed 70 people. On Sunday, gunmen targeted the Islamist lawmakers and officials Hifter blames for allowing extremists to hold the country ransom, his spokesman Mohammed al-Hegazi told Libyan television station al-Ahrar.
"This parliament is what supports these extremist Islamist entities," al-Hegazi said. "The aim was to arrest these Islamist bodies who wear the cloak of politics."
The fighting spread to the capital's southern edge Sunday night and along the airport highway.
Libya's army and police rely heavily on the country's myriad of militias, the heavily armed groups formed around ethnic identity, hometowns and religion that formed out of the rebel factions that toppled Qaddafi. Bringing them under control has been one of the greatest challenges for Libya's successive interim governments, one they largely failed at as militias have seized oil terminals and even kidnapped a former prime minister seemingly at will.
In the fighting Sunday, officials believe members of the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias, the largest in the capital, backed Hifter even though they operate under a government mandate. Al-Qaaqaa posted a statement on its official Facebook page saying it attacked parliament with Sawaaq because lawmakers supported "terrorism."
Islamist-backed parliamentary head Nouri Abu Sahmein earlier told Libyan television station al-Nabaa that parliament would convene Tuesday.
An official with the Libyan Revolution Operation Room, an umbrella group of militias groups in charge of the security in the capital, said the gunmen "kidnapped" some 20 lawmakers and government officials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists.
Lawmakers said security officials tried evacuate them before attackers breached the parliament, following warnings the building would be assaulted.
Libya's parliament is divided between Islamist and non-Islamist factions, with rival militias lining up behind them. Recently, Islamists backed the naming of a new prime minister amid walkouts from non-Islamists, who said the new government would be illegitimate.
Those who attacked parliament — and Farnana — have ties to Zintan in Libya's west and are an anti-Islamist powerhouse in Tripoli. Militias from Misrata, the other dominant force in Tripoli, largely support the Islamists.
Libya's new interim prime minister has not yet named a Cabinet. However, lawmaker Khaled al-Mashri told al-Ahrar that attackers wanted to prevent lawmakers from picking a new Cabinet as a list of nominees reached legislators Sunday.
It's not clear which militias and political leaders support Hifter, but his offensive taps into a wider disenchantment among Libyans with its virtually powerless government. Backers include members of a federalist group that had declared an autonomous eastern government and seized the region's oil terminals and ports for months, demanding a bigger share of oil revenue.
On Saturday, Hifter appeared before journalists in his military uniform and promised he would press on with his Benghazi offensive, despite warnings from the central government. They labelled his moves a coup attempt.
Hifter, a native of Benghazi, helped Qaddafi overthrow King Idris in 1969. He later served as his military chief of staff, but found himself captured by Chadian forces in the late 1980s. Authorities in Chad later released him and Hifter joined the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, the main Libyan opposition group at the time. Hifter later moved to Virginia and, in interviews with Arab media in the 1990s, described himself as building an armed force with U.S. assistance to "eliminate" Qaddafi and his associates.
He returned to Libya and briefly served as a commander of its fledging national army after Qaddafi's death. In February, he remerged in Libya via an online video in which he addressed the nation while wearing his military uniform and standing in front of the country's flag and a map, proclaiming he intended to "rescue" the nation.
Authorities described the video as a coup attempt, though he apparently was never arrested. Later, rumors circulated he visited military bases in eastern Libya to rally support before launching his Benghazi offensive Friday.