Deadly clashes broke out Saturday in Libya’s capital between militias backed by its two rival administrations, portending a return to violence amid a long political stalemate.
At least 23 people were killed and more than 140 wounded in the fighting, the health ministry said.
Six hospitals were hit and ambulances were unable to reach areas affected by the clashes, the ministry had said earlier, condemning “war crimes”.
The escalation threatens to shatter the relative calm Libya has enjoyed for most of the past two years. The oil-rich nation was sent into chaos after a Nato-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Among the fatalities was Mustafa Baraka, a comedian known for his social media videos mocking militias and corruption. Baraka died after being shot in the chest, according to Malek Merset, an emergency services spokesperson.
Merset said emergency services struggled to evacuate wounded and civilians trapped in the fighting that erupted overnight and continued into Saturday. But cautious calm appeared to have returned on Saturday night.
The health ministry said in a statement hospitals and medical centres in the capital had been shelled and ambulance teams were barred from evacuating civilians, in acts that “amount to war crimes”.
The municipal council of Tripoli blamed the ruling political class for the deteriorating situation in the capital, and urged the international community to “protect civilians in Libya”.
The violence caused widespread panic among Tripoli residents. Footage circulated online showed houses, government facilities, and vehicles apparently damaged from the fighting. Other footage showed militia forces deploying and heavy fire being exchanged across the night sky.
The UN mission in Libya said the fighting involved “indiscriminate medium and heavy shelling in civilian-populated neighbourhoods” of Tripoli.
The clashes pitted the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade militia, led by Haitham Tajouri, against another militia allied with Abdel Ghani al-Kikli, an infamous warlord known as “Gheniwa”, according to local media.
Prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah’s government, which is based in Tripoli, claimed the clashes broke out when one militia fired at another.
The fighting, however, is highly likely part of ongoing power struggle between Dbeibah and his rival prime minister, Fathi Bashagha, who is operating from the coast city of Sirte.
Both Dbeibah and Bashagha are backed by militias, and the latter was mobilising in recent weeks to try to enter Tripoli to dislodge his rival.
An attempt in May by Bashagha to install his government in Tripoli triggered clashes that ended with his withdrawal from the capital.
The US ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, urged for de-escalation “before things get worse” and for Libyan parties to agree on an early date for elections.