The powerful interior minister of Libya’s unity government survived an assassination attempt Sunday, an aide said, sparking fears of resurgent violence despite UN-led peace efforts.
Fathi Bashagha’s convoy “was fired on from an armoured car while he was on the highway” near the capital Tripoli, seat of the Government of National Accord (GNA), a member of his inner circle said.
“His police escort returned fire. Two of the assailants were arrested,” the source said.
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A third later died in hospital, a source close to the minister said.
An AFP journalist heard an intense exchange of gunfire around 3:00 pm (1300 GMT) on the coastal road near Janzur on the eastern edges of Tripoli, which was later closed for an hour by security forces.
An interior ministry official confirmed that Bashagha was not harmed.
In a statement, the ministry said Bashagha had been targeted in an “assassination attempt as he returned from his residence in Janzur”.
It said the attackers had used an armoured Toyota truck armed with a machine gun.
Security forces responded and arrested the militants, but a guard was wounded in the attack, it added.
Bashagha, a heavyweight in Libyan politics and a champion of anti-corruption efforts, has stepped up efforts in recent months to absorb armed groups into state security forces, while trying to rein in those acting outside the state — a campaign rejected by some groups.
The 58-year-old has served as interior minister for the GNA since 2018 and had been a favourite to lead a new interim government under UN-led peace efforts following an October ceasefire last year.
The post finally went to businessman Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, a 61-year-old engineer, who has called for reconstruction, democracy and reunification in Libya.
– ‘Outrage’ –
Libya has been riven by violence since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
Two rival administrations, backed by an array of militias and foreign powers, have battled for control of the oil-rich country.
After pro-GNA forces last summer repelled a year-long offensive by eastern military chief Khalifa Haftar to seize the capital, a UN-backed ceasefire set the stage for talks aimed at reaching a political solution to a decade of conflict.
Dbeibah and a three-member presidency council, elected by UN-selected delegates at talks in Switzerland on February 5, are to lead the country towards elections set for December 24.
But while some have voiced hopes for meaningful peace talks, the apparent attempt on Bashagha’s life was a stark reminder of Libya’s precarious security situation and the sway of armed groups across the chaos-ridden country.
The US embassy in Tripoli voiced “outrage” at the attack, saying a member of Bashagha’s team had been wounded.
Bashagha’s “focus on ending the influence of rogue militias has our full support”, said ambassador Richard Norland.
The shooting came just days after Libyans marked the 10-year anniversary of Kadhafi’s overthrow.