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Gunmen storm Libya's parliament

TRIPOLI, Libya — Forces apparently loyal to a retired 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 Moammar Gadhafi. Libya's leadership condemned the attack.

A commander of the military police in Libya read a statement announcing the suspension on behalf of a group led by retired Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a onetime rebel commander. Hours earlier, militiamen backed by truck-mounted antiaircraft 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 TV channel on behalf of Hifter's group, said it assigned a 60-member constituents assembly to take over for parliament. Farnana said Libya's government would act 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.

An official with the Libyan Revolution Operation Room, an umbrella group of militia groups in charge of security in the capital, said the gunmen "kidnapped" about 20 lawmakers and government officials. The official spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists.

Early Sunday, 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 of 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 that 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," he said. "The aim was to arrest these Islamist bodies who wear the cloak of politics."

Libya's army and police rely heavily on the country's militias, the heavily armed groups formed around ethnic identity, hometowns and religion that grew out of the rebel factions that toppled Gadhafi in 2011. Bringing them under control has been one of the greatest challenges for Libya's successive interim governments, one at which they have largely failed as militias have seized oil terminals and even kidnapped a former prime minister seemingly at will.

Gunmen storm Libya's parliament 05/18/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 19, 2014 12:18am]
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