TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Powerful militias that have demanded Libya's interim parliament resign or face detention said Wednesday it now has 72 hours to resolve its deadlock, while the United Nations said legislators should call for new elections as soon as possible.
The demands issued Tuesday by the Al-Qaaqaa and al-Sawaaq militias, which the country's top leaders described as an attempted coup, have brought the restive North African country's long-running political showdown to a head. Parliament is split between Islamist and non-Islamist blocs. Its mandate was to have expired this month, but the Islamists led a motion to extend it by another year.
Under street protesters' pressure, the parliament voted to hold early elections in the spring. But many consider the body a failed institution and are angered at the prospect of even this shorter extension, especially one announced in what they consider vague and opaque statements.
The two militias at first said that parliament had until 9 p.m. Tuesday to hand over power or be arrested as "usurpers," but later said they had extended their deadline by 72 hours to Friday in a deal agreed with U.N. special representative Tarek Mitri, according to a statement posted al-Qaaqaa's official Facebook page.
The UN mission to Libya subsequently denied any such deadline had been agreed, saying in a statement that media reports about it were "baseless." The militia said that the second ultimatum requires all parties to reach a "final and radical solution" to the crisis, but did not spell out any consequences if they failed to do so.
Mitri says he met with the commanders of the two militias and appealed to them to "give a chance to political dialogue about holding general elections at the earliest possible" opportunity. He warned that the use of force "threatens the stability of Libya and the political process."
Embattled Prime Minister Ali Zidan told reporters late Tuesday that he had held meetings with the rival militias and the UN envoy in an attempt to reach a "truce" and defuse the crisis. "We reject a military coup, we reject the use of force to push the Libyan people to take any action," he said. He said the only way forward is through the ballot box.
The United States, along with the European Union, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement voicing support to "the legitimacy of the transitional democratic process," saying that "the use of force is not a legitimate means to divert the democratic transition."
The interim parliament, elected in 2012, was to guide a transition that would see a constitution drafted then new elections before Feb. 7. Libya is preparing to elect a 60-member constitutional panel to draft the charter on Thursday.
The crisis comes as Libyans mark the third anniversary of the Feb. 17, 2011, start of the uprising that toppled the 42-year-old dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi. After rebel forces toppled Gadhafi, the country was left bereft of functioning institutions. Successive governments relied on militias made up largely of ex-rebels to impose order. But those militias have allied with parliamentary blocs, while a series of assassinations and abductions mostly blamed on militias have further destabilized the country.
Libya's split now spans regional, ideological and ethnic divides. Al-Qaaqaa and al-Sawaaq, from the western Libyan town of Zintan, back the non-Islamist National Forces Alliance in parliament. Other militias, including those from the port city of Misrata, are allied with the Muslim Brotherhood behind the Islamist bloc.
The National Forces Alliance issued a statement distancing itself from the militias, saying it has no armed wing. Mahmoud Jibril, the founder of the alliance and one of the most influential western-minded figures, rejected the show of force but blamed parliament and the government.
"This is a reaction to the negligence of the parliament and the government to fulfil their mission," he said in a telephone interview with Al-Assama television, owned by another figure close to the alliance. The network has been attacked twice in the past two weeks with rocket propelled grenades, leaving its studios in shambles.
Jibril urged all sides to reach an agreement and for parliament to hand over power to an elected body. The Muslim Brotherhood group denounced the militias' warnings describing them as a "blatant call to the rule of force, a direct threat using weapons and violence to impose a certain political point of view," the statement was posted late Tuesday on the group's website.