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Libya's capital goes on strike over militia attack

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ESAM MOHAMED | November 17, 2013 01:31 PM EST | AP

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Residents of the Libyan capital launched a general strike Sunday, demanding the city's myriad of powerful militias be disbanded after violence in which nearly 50 people were killed over the weekend.

Except for several protests, streets were deserted as the vast majority of Tripoli's businesses and schools were closed, with bakeries, pharmacies, hospitals and gas stations the main exception. The head of the city council, Al-Sadat al-Badri, said the strike is to last three days.

Fearing renewed violence, armed residents have set up checkpoints to protect their neighborhoods. In a sign of the continued lawlessness, a security official said the deputy of the intelligence chief was abducted as he left the city's airport.

It was not clear who abducted Mustafa Nouh, whose family is from Misrata, the city from which many of the powerful militias in Tripoli originate.

Residents are seething with anger over the violence that erupted Friday, when thousands of protesters marched on a neighborhood controlled by a number of powerful Misrata militias, prompting some militiamen to open fire, killing 43. A day later, another militia attempted to overtake a military base, clashing with government forces in violence that left four killed.

On Sunday, nearly a hundred protesters entered the parliament building while lawmakers were in session, demanding legislation to disband the militias and forcing the session to break up.

Lawmaker Fatma al-Misbari said the interim parliament was under strong pressure, but it did not specify from whom.

"There is no consensus. There is pressure on the council and the government," she said at the parliament building.

Libya's militias originated in the "revolutionary" brigades that fought against the forces of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Since his ouster and death, they have refused to disarm and have grown in size and power. Many have been enlisted by the state to serve as security forces, since the army and police are weak, underequipped and underpaid. But many continue to act as armed vigilante factions with their own interests, sometimes turning political feuds into armed conflict.

Too weak to disarm the militias, the military, police and government have tried to co-opt them, paying them to play security roles like guarding districts, facilities, even polling stations during elections. But the policy has backfired, empowering the militias without controlling them.

At the parliament, the protesters were carrying a coffin draped in Libya's post-Gadhafi flag, and held posters declaring those killed in the recent violence as "martyrs of dignity."

Speaking to Libya's Al-Ahrar TV, protester Ali Azouz said the protesters had entered the building to demand legislators order the disbanding of militias and chasing them out of Tripoli.

"We were revolutionaries since (the start of the 2011 uprising) but when we were asked to hand back our weapons we did so and went back to work," he said, denouncing the existence of rampant armed groups.

Libya's state news agency LANA said Sunday the Misrata militias accused of being responsible for Friday's killings in the southern Tripoli neighborhood of Gharghour had abandoned its headquarters there. The group had turned villas and residential compounds of former Gadhafi-era officials there into camps where they stash weapons.

It is not clear where the militia went.

A government-affiliated militia, the Libya Shield-Central Command, announced late Saturday that it took control of Gharghour, declaring it a military zone and vowing to turn it over to the government. The majority of Libya Shield's militiamen also hail from Misrata.

Militias from Misrata have a powerful presence in Tripoli.

Many Tripoli residents also marched in protest against Libya Shield's takeover of the Gharghour neighborhood.

"No to Libya Shield-Central Command," hundreds chanted Sunday, demanding the group handover the neighborhood to the military or police.