Gunmen stormed the Libyan parliament on Tuesday forcing lawmakers to postpone a vote for a new prime minister to take on the lawlessness gripping the North African nation.
The election was triggered by the resignation of Abdallah al-Thani earlier this month, who quit just five days after his appointment, saying he and his family had come under attack.
Thani, a former defence minister, had only got the job because MPs could agree on a replacement after they ousted Ali Zeidan in March to punish his failure to prevent a rebel oil shipment.
Zeidan, who then fled abroad, had been under mounting fire ever since he was briefly kidnapped last year by one of the myriad of former rebel militia that are a legacy of the 2011 uprising and which his government failed to bring to heel.
There was no immediate word on the identity or motive of the gunmen who carried out the latest assault on parliament, which came as MPs were preparing to hold a second round of voting to replace Thani.
The legislature has been attacked repeatedly by various armed groups over the past 18 months. In one assault on March 2, two lawmakers were injured by bullets.
“Armed men have seized the congress, but we do not know the motive of the attack,” member of parliament Tahar Mokni told AFP.
– Vote on premier postponed –
“We suspended our proceedings, and the vote has been postponed until next week,” he added.
Witnesses said MPs had been evacuated from the building but that gunfire continued to be heard.
The General National Congress had been preparing to hold a second-round vote between two candidates to replace Thani.
A first vote was held earlier in the day among seven candidates.
Businessman Ahmed Miitig, from Libya’s third largest city Misrata, emerged as the frontrunner with 67 votes from the 152 lawmakers present.
University professor Omar al-Hassi, from restive second city Benghazi, was runner-up, with 34 votes.
Some MPs said the attack was carried out by partisans of one of the two men after rumours began circulating that he would lose the vote.
A number of lawmakers, doubtful whether either candidate would obtain the 120 votes required for election as premier, had already proposed putting off the poll until a consensus candidate could be found.
Libya’s weak central government has struggled to rein in heavily armed former rebel brigades from the NATO-backed uprising that ended Moamer Kadhafi’s four-decade rule, many of which have carved out their own fiefdoms and refused to join the new security forces.
Violence has been particularly severe in the main eastern city of Benghazi, where a car bomb targeting a special forces barracks killed two soldiers earlier on Tuesday.
The attack, which took place at the entrance to the barracks on road to the airport, appeared to have been carried out by a suicide car bomber, an army officer said.
Benghazi was the cradle of the uprising that toppled and killed Kadhafi but has since been plagued by violence that has killed dozens of security force personnel.
Militants have also attacked foreign missions in Benghazi, including a September 2012 assault on the US consulate that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
But the capital has not been spared attacks on diplomats, with one Jordanian and two Tunisian embassy staffers still in captivity after being kidnapped earlier this month.
The assault on parliament came just days after US State Department number two William Burns warned on a lightning visit to Tripoli of the “enormous challenge” rising extremism posed for both Libya and its international partners.
Burns was the most senior US official to visit since the 2012 attack on the consulate.