Backers and opponents of federalism clashed in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi on Friday with guns, rocks and knives, amid conflicting reports on casualties.
“One person was killed and at least five others were wounded,” doctor Basma Mohammed of the Benghazi Medical Center said.
However, a city medical official said the fatality was actually from a traffic accident.
“A person who died in a car accident was brought to the medical center, which led to some confusion, but no one was killed in the clashes,” he said.
That was corroborated by Supreme Security Committee of Benghazi chairman Fawzi Wanis, who said there had been no fatalities, though two people had suffered gunshot wounds and three others had been knifed or stoned.
“Matters were brought under control and the clashes between the two sides are over,” he added.
The violence erupted after hundreds of people demonstrated in favor of federalism, a political project that calls for the division of the country into three self-governed regions.
After Friday prayers, the marchers went to Freedom Square, where Ahmed Zubair Senussi, who supports autonomy for the oil-rich east of the country, delivered a speech.
Stones and gunfire were exchanged in clashes between those who favor a federal system of government and those who, like the ruling Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC), reject the idea.
The interim authorities urged people to keep calm.
“We call on everyone to stay calm,” NTC spokesman Mukhtar al-Jadal said, adding that the violence was a spontaneous act that did not reflect in any way the government’s position on the controversial issue.
The interim authorities have equated the call for federalism to sedition.
A week ago, demonstrators flooded the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi in a protest against federalism and one person was killed when a market was set ablaze.
That came after a conference in Benghazi of tribal and political leaders unilaterally declared Cyrenaica (“Berqa” in Arabic), to be autonomous, prompting fears the country could break apart.
Libya was a federal union from 1951 to 1963 during the rule of former Libyan king Idris Senussi, which divided the country into three administrative regions — Cyrenaica in the east, Tripolitania in the west and Fezzan in the south. Senussi dissolved the federal system in 1963.
Since then, Libya has been centrally governed and residents in the southern and eastern regions often complain of marginalization.
Thousands of people converged on the seaside courthouse of Benghazi on Friday last week chanting slogans against federalism and Senussi.
In Tripoli, thousands of people amassed in the symbolic Martyrs Square, singing “No, no to federalism” and “Libya is one.”
A huge fire, thought to be the work of arsonists, ripped through a Benghazi furniture market and other blazes erupted in shops across the coastal city.
A conference hall where advocates of federalism were expected to meet was also targeted, witnesses said.