TRIPOLI, Libya — Gunmen tried to kill the head of the Libyan army Saturday in a bold daylight attack in the country's capital, setting off hours of intense gunbattles along the main highway to the airport. Assailants in Tripoli also attacked one of Libya's largest military bases.
The gunmen were believed to be from renegade groups of former rebel fighters. The violence deepens concerns about unity among the ex-rebels – many of whom remain heavily armed – while the police and military struggle to restructure their forces after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.
Military officials said revolutionary fighters from the western mountain town of Zintan were likely behind the violence. They spoke on condition of anonymity because an investigation was still under way.
The violence began in the morning with the attack on the army chief of staff's convoy as it moved from his home in Tripoli to the military headquarters, said a military spokesman, Sgt. Abdel-Razik el-Shibahy.
A group of armed men at a mock checkpoint tried to stop them, but Gen. Khalifa Hifter's convoy swerved from the checkpoint and drove over a nearby bridge where they were shot at by two gunmen positioned on the other side, el-Shibahy said.
The military spokesman said no one in the convoy was harmed and soldiers arrested the two gunmen, who are in military custody for questioning.
Minutes later, a second army convoy heading down the same road was ambushed, apparently by the same group of gunmen at another phony checkpoint. Soldiers firing AK-47 rifles wounded two gunmen, el-Shibahy said.
Hifter's predecessor, military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis, was killed in late July. At the time, rebels insisted it was the work of Gadhafi's regime, but several witnesses said Younis was killed by fellow rebels.
Near the airport road, gunmen shot at soldiers stationed inside the Katiba Hamza military base, which is used to train Libya's new army. No one was harmed in the shootout, el-Shibahy said.
By nightfall, gunbattles raged between gunmen and the National Army along Tripoli's airport road, according to an Associated Press reporter near the scene. A solider who was involved in the battles, Saddam Fakry, said the army also shelled the gunmen's positions.
Libya's new leaders have tread cautiously in seeking to persuade former fighters to disarm, stopping short of demanding their weapons until the interim government can deliver on promises of jobs and training.
The night before the attack on his convoy, Hifter told The Associated Press in an interview that he is against forcing fighters to disarm.
"Collecting weapons has to be completely voluntary," he said, adding that the transitional government should instead reward former rebels for their courage in joining the fight to oust Gadhafi.
"You know, fighters usually get medals of honor for their contribution, or a raise at their jobs," Hifter said.