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'31 dead, hundreds hurt' in Libya as militia fires on Tripoli demo

Nov. 15, 2013 7:21 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 16, 2013 2:21 P.M.)
TRIPOLI (AFP) -- At least 31 people were killed and hundreds more were wounded in Tripoli after a demonstration calling on unruly militias to leave the Libyan capital turned violent, the health minister said.

The militias are holdovers from the 2011 uprising that ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi and are a powerful force in the increasingly lawless North African country.

The government called for a ceasefire after the demonstration turned into a deadly confrontation between groups of gunmen.

"We call on all armed factions to cease fire so the government can take the necessary measures to restore calm in the capital," it said in a statement read by Culture Minister Hassan al-Amin.

But witnesses said explosions and sporadic gunfire continued into the night in several areas of the Libyan capital after the arrival of "reinforcements" from the port city of Misrata, scene of some of the most brutal fighting in the 2011 uprising.

Health Minister Nureddin Doghman said 31 people had been killed and 285 wounded, but the toll could rise further, with other officials saying the situation was chaotic.

The violence erupted when gunmen fired at hundreds of demonstrators carrying white flags from inside villas in the southern Tripoli district of Gharghour where the Misrata militia has its headquarters.

The shooting sparked a violent response in which armed men assaulted the villas and set them on fire.

It was not clear how many died in the demonstration or how many were killed in the assault.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said armed demonstrators were involved in the clashes and that the security forces had not intervened "so as not to complicate the situation".

Zeidan, who was abducted briefly by armed men in October, had warned last week of the possibility of foreign powers intervening in Libya unless chaos ends, and called on Libyans to rebel against militias.

"The people must take to the streets ... and support the building up of the army and police," he said last Sunday, in an appeal rallying his campaign against militias.

On Friday Sadat al-Badri, president of Tripoli city council, insisted that the demonstrators were unarmed.

"It was a peaceful protest," he said, and declared three days of mourning in the capital.

Badri, whose council had called for the protest, told AFP that shots fired at demonstrators came from inside the militia headquarters.

"We're going to announce a general strike and launch a civil disobedience campaign until these militias leave," he said.

In sermons at midday Muslim prayers, imams backed the call to protest against militias issued by the city council as well as Libya's mufti, the highest religious authority.

Hundreds of people carrying white flags in a sign of peace, Libya's colors and singing the national anthem had assembled in the capital's Meliana Square.

"No to militias," their banners read. "Yes to the police and army."

The protesters, among them children, then marched to the Misrata militia headquarters in Gharghour to press their demands when gunmen inside fired into the air to scare them off.

When the crowd continued to approach the building, the gunmen started firing at them, said an AFP correspondent who saw two wounded, including one hit in the stomach.

A rocket also crashed into the main road near the demonstrators, without causing casualties, the correspondent said.

A leader of the militia from Misrata, Libya's third city which saw some of the most brutal fighting in the 2011 uprising, told private television al-Naba that demonstrators had opened fire first.

Pick-ups loaded with anti-aircraft guns were seen headed for the area of the militia headquarters later Friday, witnesses said.

Regular security forces were not sighted, apart from the air force making low passes over the capital.

The mufti, Sadok al-Ghariani, appealed to residents to go home to avoid further bloodshed, while the health ministry called for blood donations to Tripoli hospitals.

The march was sparked by violence on Nov. 7 in which the Misrata militia also played a central role and which terrorized Tripoli residents and illustrated again growing instability in Libya.

A Misrata militia chief, Nuri Friwan, had been fatally wounded in fighting at a checkpoint manned by other ex-rebels, and two people were killed in subsequent fighting.

The rebels who overthrew Gadhafi were hailed as heroes for bringing an end to more than four decades of dictatorship but have since carved their own fiefdoms posing a constant threat to stability.

Residents of Tripoli frequently demonstrate against the militias, who have rejected government demands to turn in their weapons or join the national security forces.
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