New Libya parliament meets amid ongoing violence

New Libya parliament meets amid ongoing violence
People look at smoke after a car exploded outside the parliament building, where members were drafting the new Libyan constitution, in Al Bayda June 26, 2014.

BENGHAZI, Libya - Libya's new nationalist-dominated parliament held its first meeting Saturday, boycotted by Islamists, in a sign of deep divisions still plaguing a violence-racked country from which thousands are fleeing.

The parliament, elected June 25, is to take over from the interim General National Congress chosen in the wake of the 2011 NATO-backed revolution that ousted longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

It was to have convened in Benghazi on Monday, but the meeting was brought forward and shifted to Tobruk for security reasons.

Both Benghazi and the capital, Tripoli, are the scene of regular fighting that has killed more than 200 people and wounded another 1,000 in the past two weeks.

Growing insecurity has prompted thousands of people to flee, mostly overland to neighbouring Tunisia, and numerous countries to close their embassies and urge their citizens to leave.

Tripoli airport has stayed closed since gunmen, mostly Islamists, assaulted it on July 13 in a bid to take over control from the Zintan brigade of former rebels who have held it since 2011.

The brigade's opponents view it as the armed wing of the nationalist movement, and the battle is seen as part of a struggle for political influence as the new parliament prepares to assume office.

Ever since Gaddafi was ousted and killed, the new authorities have struggled in vain to rein in the many militias, which have carved out their own fiefdoms and often clash.

Fighting at the airport resumed in earnest Saturday after relative calm the previous day, with the sound of explosions and gunfire audible as far away as the city centre.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Another fuel tank hit

A blaze at a fuel depot near the airport erupted last Sunday when a rocket hit a storage tank.

A civil defence official on Saturday reported progress in putting out the fire engulfing three tanks and threatening more than 90 million litres of fuel, as well as natural gas stocks.

But later a fourth tank was hit by a rocket and set ablaze, said Mohamed al-Hrari, spokesman for the National Oil Co.

Benghazi, the scene of regular clashes between Islamists and forces backing a retired general who has launched a campaign against them, was relatively quiet Saturday.

During the meeting in Tobruk, presiding MP Abu Bakr Biira issued a call for reconciliation between rival factions, saying "we want to unite the homeland and put our differences to one side." He said Saturday's closed-door gathering was purely consultative and that a formal inaugural session would be held Monday, also in Tobruk.

And he claimed that 160 of the 180 members of the new parliament had made their way to Tobruk, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) from the capital, near the Egyptian border.

It was not possible to independently confirm that number.

But while outgoing GNC president Nouri Abou Sahamein also said the inaugural session would be held Monday, he insisted the venue was Tripoli.

The international community has pressed the new legislature to move quickly to assume power amid continuing turmoil.

Analysts say most of the seats in the new assembly were won by nationalist factions, who complain that the defeated Islamists are stirring trouble to delay the new legislature taking over.

"Worse than under Gaddafi'

In response to the growing chaos, thousands of people have fled the country.

On Friday, Libyan guards fired warning shots to keep back a crowd of people, mostly Egyptian labourers, trying to enter Tunisia, which shut the border crossing at Ras Jdir.

The frontier post was briefly reopened on Saturday, and some 200 people managed to cross.

Earlier this week, Greece sent a naval frigate to Libya to evacuate nearly 200 of its own citizens as well as people from other countries.

Paraskevi Athineou, a Greek woman living in Libya, said after the vessel docked in the Greek port of Piraeus that "we have gone through (war) before, with Gaddafi, but now it's much worse." "Chaos reigns. There is no government, we have no food, no fuel, no water, no electricity for hours on end," she told AFP Saturday.

Osama Monsour, a 35-year-old NGO worker in Tripoli, said: "So many people died to make the country better, but now we started killing each other in a civil war."

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