Conflict & Justice

Libya's recent rise in violence has the US preparing to evacuate its embassy there

Updated:

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Armed men aim their weapons from a vehicle as smoke rises in the background near the General National Congress in Tripoli May 18, 2014. Heavily armed gunmen stormed into Libya's parliament on Sunday after attacking the building with anti-aircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, witnesses and residents said.

Credit:

Reuters

The US military is preparing to evacuate Americans from the US Embassy in Tripoli as violence in Libya intensifies.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

This past weekend, fighting broke out among rival factions. Renegade forces stormed parliament, angry that the interim government has formed an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. In response, the speaker of the interim parliament ordered troops to deploy in Tripoli. It's the worst fighting since the 2011 uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.

The conflict casts a shadow on the new government and prime minister, who are expected to replace the interim government later this week. Mary Fitzgerald, a journalist based in Tripoli, says the renegade forces represent various regions and factions around the country.

"What they have in common is that they are loyal to — or taking their cue from — a former general, Khalifa Hifter, who in February called for the suspension of the government and the congress in order to, as he put it, 'rescue' the country," she says.

At the time, Hifter's move to "rescue the country" was greeted with ridicule and condemned by government officials, says Fitzgerald. The government even planned to issue a warrant for Hifter's arrest.

"That didn't happen, and Hifter went to eastern Libya and spent the last several months trying to drum up support for a campaign that he says is aimed at cleaning eastern Libya of extremists," Fitzgerald says. "He accuses them of being behind a series of assassinations in the region. He is also very much against the congress. He claims that these extremists in eastern Libya are backed by certain elements within the democratically-elected congress."

Last weekend, Hifter attacked Islamist militia bases in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city. The clashes killed more than 70 people.

"That particular development seems to have inspired something of a domino effect here in Tripoli," she says. "On Sunday, several militias attacked the congress' headquarters, resulting in two deaths and several more injured. The anti-Islamist militias who led the attack had previously threatened the congress, claiming that it had lost legitimacy and claiming that it had become dominated by Islamists."

The militias say the congress should — and will — be replaced by another entity, says Fitzgerald.

Khalifa Hifter himself has a checkered history and his recent actions are preventing him from drawing a wider net of support.

"I've been struck by the number of Libyans who say, while they agree with the moves he has made in recent days, they are very ambivalent, if not outwardly critical, of the man himself," Fitzgerald says. "Hifter is known in Libya for his involvement in Libya's disastrous war in Chad in the 1980s. After that, he fled to the US, where he joined the opposition. There are claims here in Libya that he developed a relationship with the CIA when he was in the US. This checkered history has really stood against him in Libya."

In 2011, during the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, Hifter returned to Libya and began commanding the rebel forces leading the uprising. But Hifter was accused of jockeying for power — something that made him an extremely polarizing figure, Fitzgerald says.

Editor's note: This story was updated to indicate that the US military is preparing to evacuate Americans. 

This interview first appeared on PRI's The Takeaway, a public media show that invites you to be a part of the American conversation.