Clashes killed three people and wounded several others in eastern Libya on Friday as locals confronted Islamists attempting to destroy a Muslim shrine, the interior ministry said.
Witnesses said that armed villagers from Rajma, 50 kilometres (31 miles) southeast of Benghazi, clashed with a group of Muslim extremists who tried to demolish the Sidi al-Lafi mausoleum, killing three Islamists.
“The clashes left three people dead and several more wounded on both sides,” Deputy Interior Minister Wanis al-Sharif told AFP.
“The situation is now under control” after Libyan security forces halted the violence and dispersed the assailants with help from local tribal chiefs, said Sharif.
Islamist hardliners bulldozed part of a mausoleum near the centre of the Libyan capital Tripoli late last month, a day after another shrine was blown up in eastern Zliten.
According to witnesses a mausoleum was also destroyed at that time in the port city of Misrata, 200 kilometres east of Tripoli.
The destructions triggered protests in Tripoli and drew international condemnation, with the UN cultural body UNESCO expressing “grave concern” after Sufi shrines were attacked.
After the attacks Interior Minister Fawzi Abdelali warned that Islamists amount to a “major force” in Libya both in terms of numbers and arms.
But he ruled out a head-on confrontation with Islamist hardliners, referring to the destruction of shrines as “a very complicated business” that required dialogue.
Hardline Sunni Islamists, known as Salafists, are opposed to the veneration of tombs of revered Muslim figures, saying that such devotion should be reserved for God alone.
The Sufis, who have played a historical role in the affairs of Libya, have increasingly found themselves in conflict with Qatari- and Saudi-trained Salafist preachers who consider them heretical.