Militias patrolled nearly deserted streets in Libya’s capital Sunday, a day after clashes killed more than 30 people and ended Tripoli’s monthslong stretch of relative calm.
The fighting broke out early Saturday and pitted militias loyal to the Tripoli-based government against other armed groups allied with a rival administration that has for months sought to be seated in the capital.
Residents fear the fighting could explode into a wider war and a return to the peaks of Libya's long-running conflict.
Libya has plunged into chaos since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. The oil-rich county has for years been split between rival administrations, each backed by rogue militias and foreign governments.
The current stalemate grew out of the failure to hold elections in December and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah's refusal to step down. In response, the country’s east-based parliament appointed a rival prime minister, Fathy Bashagha, who has for months sought to install his government in Tripoli.
Saturday's fighting centered in the densely populated city center and involved heavy artillery. Hundreds were trapped and hospitals, government and residential buildings were damaged.
The Health Ministry said at least 32 people were killed and 159 wounded in the clashes.
Among the dead was Mustafa Baraka, a comedian known for his social media videos mocking militias and corruption. He was shot reportedly while live-streaming on social media. It was not clear whether he was targeted.
Reporters spoke to dozens of residents and witnesses who recounted horrific scenes of people, including women and children, trapped in their homes, government buildings and hospitals. They also spoke of at least three motionless bodies that remained for hours in the street before an ambulance was able to reach the area. They asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from the militias.
“We see death before our eyes and in the eyes of our children,” said a woman who was trapped along with many families in a residential apartment. “The world should protect those innocent children like they did at the time of Gadhafi.”
Militias allied with Tripoli-based Dbeibah were seen roaming the streets in the capital early Sunday. Their rivals were stationed at their positions in the outskirts of the city, according to local media.
Much of the city has suffered nightly power outages. Several businesses were closed Sunday and the state-run National Oil Corp. ordered its employees to work remotely Sunday.
Residents were still wary of potential violence and most stayed in their homes Sunday. Many rushed to supermarkets when the clashes subsided late Saturday to stock up on food and other necessities.
“It could be triggered in a flash. They (the militias) are uncontrolled," said a Tripoli school teacher who only gave a partial name, Abu Salim. “Our demand is very simple: a normal life."
Dbeibah’s government claimed the fighting began when a member of a rival militia fired at a patrol of another militia in Tripoli's Zawiya Street. It said the shots came amid a mobilization of Bashagha-allied groups around the capital. The claim couldn’t be independently verified.
Militia clashes are not uncommon in Tripoli. Last month, at least 13 people were killed in militia fighting. In May, Bashagha attempted to install his government in Tripoli, triggering clashes that ended with his withdrawal from the city.