CAIRO — Militiamen patrolled the nearly empty streets of the Libyan capital on Sunday as clashes killed more than 30 people, ending a months-long stretch of relative calm in Tripoli.
At least 17 civilians were among the dead, local officials said. Fighting broke out early Saturday morning, with government-loyal militias based in Tripoli fighting other armed groups allied with a rival regime that has sought to sit in the capital for months.
Residents fear the fighting that ended months of political stalemate could escalate into a wider war and return to the pinnacle of Libya’s long-running conflict.
Libya has been in chaos since NATO-backed riots in 2011 overthrew and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi. For years, the oil-rich county has been divided between rogue militias and rival regimes backed by foreign governments.
The current stalemate stemmed from the failure to hold elections in December and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dubeiba’s refusal to resign. In response, the country’s eastern-based parliament appointed a rival prime minister, Fasih Bashaga, who has been trying for months to install a government in Tripoli.
Saturday’s fighting was concentrated in the densely populated city center and involved heavy artillery. Hundreds were trapped and hospitals, governments and homes were damaged. The crash area was littered with burning cars.
The Ministry of Health said at least 32 people were killed and 159 injured in the clashes.
UNICEF’s representative in Libya, Michele Selvadei, said one 17-year-old was killed and four others as young as five were injured in the clashes.
Among those killed was Mustafa Baraka, a comedian known for his social media videos mocking militias and corruption. He was reportedly shot during his live stream on social media. It was not clear if he was targeted.
The Associated Press spoke to dozens of residents and witnesses. They described horrifying scenes in which people, including women and children, were trapped in homes, government buildings and hospitals. He also spoke of three motionless bodies. They asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from the militia.
“We see death in front of our eyes, and in front of our children,” said a woman trapped in a residential apartment with many of her family members. “The world must protect innocent children like it did with Gaddafi.”
Militia allied with the Tripoli-based Dbeibah were seen roaming the streets of the capital early Sunday morning. According to local media, their rivals were stationed on the outskirts of the city.
Much of the city suffered overnight power outages. Several businesses closed on Sunday, and the National Petroleum Corporation ordered its employees to work remotely on Sunday.
Residents were still disgusted by the possibility of violence and most stayed home on Sunday. Many people rushed to supermarkets to stock up on food and other essentials as clashes subsided late Saturday. Others were seen inspecting damaged businesses, homes and cars. .
“It can be activated in an instant. They (militia) are not controlled,” said Abu Salim, a school teacher in Tripoli. “Our demands are very simple: a normal life.”
The Dbeibah government claimed the fighting began when members of a rival militia opened fire on another militia patrol on Tripoli’s Zawiya Street. It said the shooting occurred amid a mobilization of Bashaga allied groups around the capital. We were unable to independently verify the claims.
Militia clashes are not uncommon in Tripoli. At least 13 people were killed in militia fighting last month. In May Bashaga attempted to install a government in Tripoli, sparking clashes and withdrawing from the city.