At least two explosions targeting the city centre of Benghazi capped a weekend of violence and chaos in eastern Libya that included a vast prison break, three assassinations and rowdy protests against the country’s Islamists.
The privately owned Libyan news channel al-Ahrar said the explosions on Sunday night struck the courthouse where protesters first took to the streets in February 2011 to launch what became a Nato-backed armed uprising against the country’s longtime regime, and another recently refurbished courthouse. Al Jazeera and Reuters reported three explosions.
Mohamed Hejazi, spokesman for the Benghazi security forces, told the English-language Libya Herald that at least 10 people were injured in the attack.
Photographs posted to the internet showed a burning automobile and shattered windows. The explosions came minutes before a big evening demonstration against Islamists accused of being behind the violence was to set to begin. There were no reports of official casualty numbers.
The latest violence further undermined the oil and gas-rich country’s already fragile security. Hours before the explosions, the country’s leadership had announced a cabinet reshuffle.
At least 1,000 prisoners fled from the Kuwaifiya prison near the eastern city of Benghazi on Saturday amid chaotic anti-Islamist protests prompted by the assassinations on Friday of a prominent political activist and two security officials, the official WAL news agency reported.
On Sunday, officials reported that some of the escaped prisoners had been caught while others had been returned to jail by their families. The interior and judiciary ministries called on escaped prisoners to turn themselves in in exchange for a review of their sentences, or face forcible return to detention.
Ali Zidane, prime minister, declared that he would reorganise his cabinet and streamline his government in response to the latest unrest. “We are about to make a cabinet reshuffle and decrease the number of ministries to ensure a better performance to face the urgent situation,” Mr Zidane said in a press conference on Sunday, according to Reuters. “What is happening is an attempt to obstruct the state’s progression.”
Libya also announced it was closing its eastern land border with Egypt for fear that prisoners would escape across the desert frontier.
The chaos began with the assassination of Libyan political activist Abdul Salam Mohamed Mismari, who was gunned down by a single bullet to the heart as he walked home from noon prayers on Friday, according to a statement issued by the ministry of interior. Later that evening, a retired air force colonel and an active police official were also killed.
Mismari was known as a harsh critic of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, and protesters poured on to the streets on Friday and Saturday, attacking several offices of the Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction party across the country. Dozens were injured in the violence.
Islamist groups across the Arab world are under pressure after a July 3 coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Egypt.
“People are angry at the Brotherhood and what’s happened in Egypt has been reflected here in Libya,” said Abdulmoneim Sbeta, a Libyan political analyst and former member of the transitional government established after the 2011 overthrow of Muammer Gaddafi’s regime. “Libyans are more aware of the dangers of the Muslim Brotherhood. Someone had to take the blame [for Mismari’s killing] and the streets decided it was the Brotherhood.”
The prison break came during chaotic funeral marches for Mismari. It remained unclear how the prisoners escaped. Mr Zidane told WAL that neighbours living near the prison may have aided in the mass escape, an allegation that angered the residents. Others accused militiamen allied with hardline Islamists of helping break imprisoned comrades out of jail. “This protest was a very good opportunity for the prisoners’ allies to help them escape,” said Ali Abbas, a political analyst at the Islamic Dawa Centre in Tripoli, the capital.
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