Libya’s new nationalist-dominated parliament held its first meeting Saturday, boycotted by Islamists, in a sign of deep divisions still plaguing a violence-racked country from which thousands are fleeing.
The parliament, elected June 25, is to take over from the interim General National Congress (GNC) chosen in the wake of the 2011 NATO-backed revolution that ousted longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
It was to have convened in Benghazi on Monday, but the meeting was brought forward and shifted to Tobruk farther east for security reasons.
Both Benghazi and the capital, Tripoli, are the scene of regular fighting that has killed more than 200 people and wounded another 1,000 in the past two weeks.
Growing security problems have prompted thousands of people to flee, mostly overland to neighbouring Tunisia, and numerous countries to close their embassies and urge their citizens to leave.
Tripoli airport has stayed closed since gunmen, mostly Islamists, attacked it on July 13 in a bid to wrest control from the Zintan brigade of former rebels who have held it since the 2011 revolt.
The brigade’s opponents view it as the armed wing of the nationalist movement, and the battle is seen as part of a struggle for political influence as the new parliament prepares to assume office.
Ever since Kadhafi was ousted and killed, the new authorities have struggled in vain to rein in the many militias which have carved out their own fiefdoms and often clash.
Fighting at the airport resumed in earnest Saturday after relative calm on Friday, with explosions and gunfire heard as far away as the city centre.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
– 4th fuel tank hit –
A blaze at a fuel depot near the airport erupted last Sunday when a rocket hit a storage tank.
A civil defence official on Saturday reported progress in putting out the fire engulfing three tanks and threatening more than 90 million litres of fuel, as well as natural gas stocks.
But later a fourth tank was hit by a rocket and set ablaze, said Mohamed al-Hrari, spokesman for the National Oil Co.
Benghazi, the scene of regular clashes between Islamists and forces backing a retired general who has launched an offensive against them, was relatively quiet Saturday.
During the meeting in Tobruk, presiding MP Abu Bakr Biira issued a call for reconciliation between rival factions, saying: “We want to unite the homeland and put our differences to one side.”
He said Saturday’s closed-door gathering, boycotted by Islamists, was purely consultative and that a formal inaugural session would be held on Monday, also in Tobruk.
And he said that 160 of the 180 members of the new parliament had made their way to Tobruk, 1,500 kilometres (930 miles) from the capital, near the Egyptian border.
It was not possible to independently confirm that number.
But while outgoing GNC president Nuri Abu Sahmein also said the inaugural session would be held Monday, he insisted the venue was Tripoli.
The international community has pressed the new legislature to move quickly to assume power amid continuing turmoil.
Analysts say most of the seats in the new assembly were won by nationalist factions, who complain that the defeated Islamists are stirring trouble to delay the new legislature taking over.
– ‘Worse than under Kadhafi’ –
In response to the growing chaos, thousands of people have fled the country.
On Friday, Libyan guards fired warning shots to keep back a crowd of people, mostly Egyptian labourers, trying to enter Tunisia, which shut the border crossing at Ras Jedir.
The frontier post was reopened on Saturday and several hundred people managed to cross.
Egypt’s ambassador in Tunis, Ayman Musharafa, announced that Cairo would fly home from Tunisia its citizens who were allowed to enter the country.
More than 400 workers from China on Saturday joined the evacuations, crossing to Tunisia in a convoy of cars, Chinese media said.
Earlier this week, Greece sent a naval frigate to Libya to evacuate nearly 200 of its own citizens as well as people from other countries.
Paraskevi Athineou, a Greek woman living in Libya, told AFP after the vessel docked in the Greek port of Piraeus that “we have gone through (war) before, with Kadhafi, but now it’s much worse.”
And in Manila, oil worker Michael Atalan, 37, said after being repatriated: “It was difficult. There were explosions night and day.”