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Libya parliament attacked, Benghazi Islamists targeted

Clashes broke out near the interim parliament in Tripoli, adding to turmoil in Libya where a rogue general has launched an offensive against Islamists in the city of Benghazi.

TRIPOLI: Clashes broke out on Sunday near the interim parliament in Tripoli, adding to turmoil in Libya where a rogue general has launched an offensive against Islamists in the city of Benghazi.

MPs were evacuated from the building in southern Tripoli as heavy gunfire erupted after a convoy of armoured vehicles entered the city from the airport road and headed for the General National Congress (GNC).

Residents said gunmen in civilian clothes attacked the building.

GNC speaker Nuri Abu Sahmein speculated the attack, in which no casualties were reported, could have been the work of the rogue general, Khalifa Haftar.

But some witnesses said the gunmen were members of the powerful Zintan brigades, made up of former rebels who fought late dictator Moamer Gadhafi in Libya's 2011 revolution.

The groups from Zintan now control areas in southern Tripoli around the airport, and they are known for their opposition to Islamists.

An AFP photographer said a column of smoke billowed over the GNC building after gunmen set fire to an annex, and that several cars parked nearby had been damaged.

Later, the gunmen were seen withdrawing to their bases and gunfire was heard along the airport road, residents said.

Militias have launched several attacks on the GNC, including on March 2 when two lawmakers were shot and wounded.

The latest violence in Tripoli came after deadly fighting in the eastern city of Benghazi, where Haftar unleashed his so-called National Army on Islamist militiamen on Friday, backed by warplanes.

It was not immediately clear if there was any link between the unrest in Tripoli and the clashes in Benghazi, where at least 79 people were reported killed.

The Zintan brigades ordered the GNC to evacuate in February, setting a deadline, but did not act against parliament when the ultimatum expired.

In Benghazi, the retired general accused by Tripoli of staging a coup has said he is readying a new assault on Islamist groups, vowing to eradicate "terrorism".

"Each battle is followed by a regrouping of units. And we will return in force," Haftar said after his men withdrew late Friday.

The government accused the "outlaw" Haftar of trying to mount a coup and declared a Benghazi no-fly zone.

Haftar, who led ground forces in the 2011 revolution, said: "Our operation is not a coup and we do not plan to seize power."

The general defected from Gadhafi’s forces in the late 1980s and spent nearly 20 years in the United States before joining the uprising.

Detractors accuse him of being in the pay of the Americans.

Abu Sahmein, speaker of the GNC, Libya's highest political body, has denounced the Benghazi operation.

It is "an action outside state legitimacy and a coup d'etat", said a joint statement read on state television by the GNC chief, flanked by newly-appointed Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani and armed forces chief of staff Abdessalam Jadallah al-Salihin.

"All those who took part in this coup bid will be prosecuted."

Haftar responded by saying he does not recognise the GNC whose "mandate has already expired and who are rejected by the people".

The interim parliament sparked outrage earlier this year when it extended its own mandate from February until December.

Subsequent protests compelled it to promise early elections and a new electoral law.

Libyan authorities have struggled to stomp out lawlessness in a country awash with weapons from the anti-Gadhafi revolt and effectively ruled by a patchwork of former rebels.

Ex-rebels, particularly Islamists, have been blamed for attacks that have killed dozens of members of the security forces, judges and foreigners in Benghazi, cradle of the revolution.

The army says Haftar is backed by tribes, army defectors and former rebels who oppose the central government.

Haftar's forces on Friday mainly targeted Ansar al-Sharia, an organisation designated by the United States as a terrorist group.

His offensive comes at a time of high political tension, particularly after this month's disputed election of the Islamist-backed Thani.

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