At least 31 people were killed and hundreds were wounded in Tripoli after a demonstration calling on unruly militias to leave the Libyan capital turned violent on Friday, the Libyan health minister said.
The militias are holdovers from the 2011 uprising that ousted late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and are a powerful force in the increasingly lawless North African country.
The government called for a ceasefire after the demonstration turned into a deadly confrontation between groups of gunmen.
“We call on all armed factions to cease fire so the government can take the necessary measures to restore calm in the capital,” it said in a statement read by Libyan Minister of Culture Hassan al-Amin.
Yet witnesses said explosions and sporadic gunfire continued into the night in several areas of the Libyan capital after the arrival of “reinforcements” from the port city of Misrata, scene of some of the most brutal fighting in the uprising.
Libyan Minister of Health Nureddin Doghman said 31 people had been killed and 285 wounded, but the toll could rise further, with other officials saying the situation was chaotic.
The violence erupted when gunmen fired at hundreds of demonstrators carrying white flags from inside villas in the southern Tripoli district of Gharghour, where the Misrata militia has its headquarters. The shooting sparked a violent response in which armed men assaulted the villas and set them on fire.
It was not clear how many died in the demonstration or how many were killed in the assault.
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said armed demonstrators were involved in the clashes and that the security forces had not intervened “so as not to complicate the situation.”
Zeidan, who was abducted briefly by armed men last month, had warned last week of the possibility of foreign powers intervening in Libya unless chaos ends, and called on Libyans to rebel against militias.
“The people must take to the streets ... and support the building up of the army and police,” he said on Sunday last week, in an appeal rallying his campaign against militias.
On Friday, Tripoli city council president Sadat al-Badri insisted that the demonstrators were unarmed.
“It was a peaceful protest,” he said, and declared three days of mourning in the capital.
Badri, whose council had called for the protest, told reporters that shots fired at demonstrators came from inside the militia headquarters.
“We’re going to announce a general strike and launch a civil disobedience campaign until these militias leave,” he said.
In sermons at midday Muslim prayers, imams backed the call to protest against militias issued by the city council, as well as Libya’s mufti, the highest religious authority.