Turmoil in Libya: Fighting sweeps across Tripoli following violence in Benghazi

Libya Map

TRIPOLI, Libya (CNN) — Fierce fighting swept across the Libyan capital of Tripoli on Sunday, a short time after armed men stormed the country’s interim parliament. The violence appeared to be some of the worst since the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Libyans rushed home Sunday evening. One Libyan who spoke to CNN reported seeing shop owners quickly closing up.

State media LANA reported that lawmakers had already left for the General National Congress when that attack happened as the session was over for the day. Armed men blocked the road that led to the parliament, LANA said, blocking members’ access to their offices.

Some lawmakers went on Libyan TV stations to talk about the attack, saying that fighting erupted in the area around the GNC.

The attack involved members of powerful militias from the western mountain city of Zintan.

But the al-Qaaqaa brigade, a Zintan militia based in Tripoli, issued a statement that it had “heeded the call of the homeland to save it from the abusing politicians …”

Two other militias from Zintan reportedly took part: al-Madani and al-Sawaeq.

A CNN correspondent in Tripoli could hear intense blasts and gunfire coming from the road to the city’s airport. Roads were being blocked off, according to eyewitnesses.

Fighting appears to have spread to several parts of Tripoli and roads are being blocked off, according to eyewitnesses.

One of those people told the correspondent that he and his family are leaving their Abu Salim neighborhood, which is in the southern suburbs of the capital where fighting has increased and militias are engaged in battle on the street.

The man said he saw a shell hit a neighborhood building along the airport road and that a fire had started.

A Tripoli doctor told CNN that hospitals have called medical staff, telling them to come to work and to expect casualties.

Simmering tensions

Libya’s main political forces have been slowly reaching an intense divide between Islamist and liberal lines.

The more liberal parties, backed by the heavily armed Zintan militias, have accused the Islamists of hijacking power and controlling the government and parliament.

These militias have previously threatened to attack the GNC. Negotiations spearheaded by the U.N. Mission in Tripoli prevented an attack in February.

The violence in the capital came as the death toll rose over the weekend from intense fighting Friday to the east in and around Benghazi.

Retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general whose fighters caused much of the carnage in Benghazi, vowed to continue his assault on Islamist militants and other militias in the eastern Libyan city.

One of those groups include Ansar al Sharia, which was blamed the attack on the U.S. Consulate on September 11, 2012, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Fighting initiated by Haftar has left many dead.

Seventy-five people lost their lives after attacks by his self-declared Libyan National Army on Friday. An additional 141 people were wounded, the Libyan Ministry of Health said late Saturday, citing tallies from six hospitals.

The government has vehemently rejected the actions of the former officer who fought in the 2011 rebellion.

A country awash in weapons and frustrations

Libya’s revolution left the country awash in weapons in the hands of various militias divided along regional, tribal and political lines that have competing agendas and affiliations.

Many of the militias fought the Gadhafi regime in 2011 and have refused to disarm and disband. Thousands more Libyans have taken up arms since Gadhafi fell.

The government’s attempts to build state security forces have failed so far, and those in authorities have relied on militias for protection.

Many Libyans are frustrated by how the national elections were handled, the declining security situation and the country’s general lack of progress since the revolution.

Militants have attacked foreign diplomats and Westerners as well as Libyan journalists, activists and judges, but they have aimed most of their violence at government security forces with nearly daily bombings, kidnappings and assassinations.

Residents and officials have blamed the violence particularly on Islamist militant groups, including Ansar al Sharia.

The United States designated Ansar al Shari a terrorist organization this year.

Doggedly determined in Benghazi

Haftar vowed late Saturday that he will purge the city of extremist groups.

There is “no turning back” from “saving Libya” from “terrorism” that is killing innocent Libyans and targeting military officers, he said in a televised address.

“Operation Dignity that started … from the cradle of the revolution and the heart of the homeland Benghazi is the answer and the response to the demands of the Libyan people for their armed forces to step up and protect it; this is its duty,” Haftar said.

One of Haftar’s spokesmen, in a televised statement, warned residents in three neighborhoods to evacuate.

“An urgent call to our people residing in al-Quwarsha, Sidi Faraj and al-Hawari to evacuate their homes and neighborhoods to preserve their lives and for their safety,” said Col. Mohammed Hijazi.

Reported air strikes

Haftar’s forces may have bombed militia bases in the city from the air. Residents reported seeing helicopters and other aircraft taking part in his assault.

At least one Libyan air force jet flew in the offensive without official approval, said acting Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni.

An airstrike in Benghazi on a base of Ansar al Sharia killed at least one of its members on Friday, LANA reported.

The aerial attacks prompted the army to place a strict ban on flights over Benghazi, LANA said.

Army units, security forces and revolutionary forces will target any military aircraft flying over Benghazi, the government said. The “revolutionary forces” phrase is a term the government uses to describe state-sanctioned militias.

Some of them could find themselves in Haftar’s crosshairs, as well.

International air carriers, including Tunisair, Royal Jordanian and EgyptAir, have canceled their flights to Benghazi after authorities closed the city’s airport as a precautionary safety measure.

By Jomana Karadsheh and Ashley Fantz

CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh reported from Tripoli, Libya, and Ben Brumfield and Ashley Fantz wrote and reported from Atlanta.