Forces loyal to a rogue Libyan general attacked the country's parliament Sunday, expanding his eastern offensive against Islamists into the heart of the country's capital. The attack forced lawmakers to flee under a barrage of heavy gunfire.
The troops of Gen. Khalifa Hifter targeted Islamist lawmakers and officials, his spokesman Mohammed al-Hegazi told Libya's al-Ahrar television station. Al-Hegazi said Hifter blames the officials for allowing extremists forces to exert unrivalled influence in the country.
"This parliament is what supports these extremist Islamist entities," al-Hegazi told the station. "The aim was to arrest these Islamist bodies who wear the cloak of politics."
Al-Hegazi said forces loyal to Hifter met resistance from militias he accused of "holding the country hostage." He called the parliament the "heart of the crisis" in Libya.
Gunfire near parliament could be heard for kilometers (miles) around. Smoke billowed from a distance over the parliament building, as witnesses said the attacking forces shelled the building from the southern edge of the city.
A spokesman for the Libyan Revolution Operation Room, an umbrella group of militias groups who answer to the interim parliament and are in charge of the security in the capital, said fighters engaged the attackers but there were no reports of casualties. Forces loyal to the interim parliament set up checkpoints around the parliament, sending journalists away.
The spokesman said the attacking forces are suspected members of the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias, the largest in the capital. While they operate under a government mandate, they back the non-Islamist political forces.
The two groups have before given parliament an ultimatum to dissolve after its mandate expired in February, threatening to detain lawmakers if they refused. They never carried out their threats, though the parliament vowed to hold elections later this year.
The bases of the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias are located near the parliament.
A security official said the attackers also shelled a nearby military base controlled by an Islamist militia. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists.
Lawmakers say security officials evacuated them from the building out of fears it would be stormed.
An Associated Press journalist saw militias in vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft-guns gather near the parliament. The security official told the AP that lawmakers received warnings ahead of the attack that the building would be assaulted. Al-Ahrar reported the same.
Libya's parliament is divided between Islamist and non-Islamist forces who have bickered over appointing a new government and holding new elections. Rival militias, which wield the real power in Libya, have lined up behind competing political factions. Recently, Islamists forces backed the naming of a new prime minister, amid walkouts from the non-Islamist groups. The new interim prime minister has not yet named a Cabinet.
But splits in Libya are also regional and ethnic, with longstanding rivalries between the country's eastern and western regions.
Since Hifter's offensive in Benghazi began on Friday, many of his supporters have pushed for him to take action in the capital, Tripoli, complaining about the ineffective government.
On Saturday, Hifter said he will press on with his offensive in Benghazi, despite warnings by the central government that cooperating troops will be tried. They labelled his moves a coup attempt.
He responded by saying the central government and parliament have no mandate.
The fighting that broke out in Benghazi on Friday killed 70 people, Libya's Health Ministry said Sunday.
Benghazi, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled Libya's late dictator Moammar Gadhafi, was quiet Sunday, though its airport remained closed for a second day.
Libya's weak central government describes the offensive by forces loyal to Hifter, which includes air support, as tantamount to a coup. The violence there and in the capital, Tripoli, shows how precarious government control remains three years after the 2011 civil war that toppled Gadhafi.
Libya's military banned flights Saturday to Benghazi and said in a statement that it would target any military aircraft flying over the city.