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Renegade Libyan general’s troops attack parliament

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In this image made from video provided by the Libyan national army via AP Television, Tripoli joint security forces on vehicles with heavy artillery stand guard on the entrance road to the parliament area after troops of Gen. Khalifa Hifter targeted Islamist lawmakers and officials at the parliament in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Forces loyal to a rogue Libyan general attacked the country’s parliament Sunday, expanding his eastern offensive against Islamists into the heart of the country’s capital. (AP Photo/Libyan national army)

In this image made from video provided by the Libyan national army via AP Television, Tripoli joint security forces on vehicles with heavy artillery stand guard on the entrance road to the parliament area after troops of Gen. Khalifa Hifter targeted Islamist lawmakers and officials at the parliament in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Forces loyal to a rogue Libyan general attacked the country’s parliament Sunday, expanding his eastern offensive against Islamists into the heart of the country’s capital. (AP Photo/Libyan national army)

In this image made from video provided by the Libyan national army via AP Television, vehicles with heavy artillery of the Tripoli joint security forces move closer to the parliament building after troops of Gen. Khalifa Hifter targeted Islamist lawmakers and officials at the parliament in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Forces loyal to a rogue Libyan general attacked the country’s parliament Sunday, expanding his eastern offensive against Islamists into the heart of the country’s capital. (AP Photo/Libyan national army)

In this image made from video provided by the Libyan national army via AP Television, smoke rises over the parliament area after troops of Gen. Khalifa Hifter targeted Islamist lawmakers and officials at the parliament in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Forces loyal to a rogue Libyan general attacked the country’s parliament Sunday, expanding his eastern offensive against Islamists into the heart of the country’s capital. (AP Photo/Libyan national army)

In this Saturday, May 17, 2014 photo, Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter addresses a press conference in Benghazi, Libya. The death toll from fighting over the weekend in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi between troops loyal to Hifter, a rogue general, and Islamist militias has risen to at least 70, the Health Ministry said on Sunday. In a statement late Saturday, Libya’s interim prime minister, parliament speaker and the head of military warned Hifter against further pursuing his offensive and threatened the troops cooperating with him. (AP Photo/Mohammed el-Shaiky)

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TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Militias apparently backing a renegade Libyan general attacked the country’s parliament Sunday, kidnapping some 20 lawmakers and officials in an assault that threatened to further splinter a country dominated by the armed groups that overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi three years ago.

A spokesman for the Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a one-time rebel commander who said the U.S. backed his efforts topple Gadhafi in the 1990s, said the forces acted under his command. Backed by truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, mortars and rocket fire, the gunmen sent lawmakers fleeing for their lives as they ransacked the legislature. Heavy gunfire rang out into the night in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, panicking residents as mortar rounds landed in their neighborhoods.

The attack, which hospital officials said killed one person and wounded nine, came after an assault Friday by Hifter’s forces on Islamist militias in the restive eastern city of Benghazi that authorities said killed 70 people. On Sunday, gunmen targeted the Islamist lawmakers and officials Hifter blames for allowing extremists to hold the country ransom, his spokesman Mohammed al-Hegazi told Libya’s al-Ahrar television station.

“This parliament is what supports these extremist Islamist entities,” al-Hegazi said. “The aim was to arrest these Islamist bodies who wear the cloak of politics.”

The fighting spread to the capital’s southern edge Sunday night and along the highway leading to the airport.

Libya’s army and police rely heavily on the country’s myriad of militias, the heavily armed groups formed around ethnic identity, hometowns and religion that formed out of the rebel factions that toppled Gadhafi. Bringing them under control has been one of the greatest challenges for Libya’s successive interim governments, one they largely failed at as militias have seized oil terminals and even kidnapped a former prime minister seemingly at will.

In the fighting Sunday, officials believe members of the al-Qaaqaa and Sawaaq militias, the largest in the capital, backed Hifter even though they operate under a government mandate. Al-Qaaqaa posted a statement on its official Facebook page saying it attacked parliament with Sawaaq because lawmakers supported “terrorism.”

The two groups previously gave parliament an ultimatum to dissolve after its mandate expired in February, threatening to detain lawmakers. They never carried out their threats but parliament eventually vowed to hold elections later this year.

Islamist-backed parliamentary head Nouri Abu Sahmein later told Libyan television station al-Nabaa that the militias loyal to the government have matters “under control,” and vowed to convene parliament Tuesday.

“Those who plan and plot such things want to strike here and there to make others feel he has influence,” Abu Sahmein said. “We are not in battle with individuals. We are carrying out a role that we were elected to do.”

However, an official with the Libyan Revolution Operation Room, an umbrella group of militias groups in charge of the security in the capital, said the gunmen “kidnapped” some 20 lawmakers and government officials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists.

Lawmakers said security officials tried evacuate them before attackers breached the parliament, following warnings the building would be assaulted.

Libya’s parliament is divided between Islamist and non-Islamist factions, with rival militias lining up behind them. Recently, Islamists backed the naming of a new prime minister amid walkouts from non-Islamists.

Libya’s new interim prime minister has not yet named a Cabinet. However, lawmaker Khaled al-Mashri told al-Ahrar that attackers wanted to prevent lawmakers from picking a new Cabinet as a list of nominees reached legislators Sunday.

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