Militia threat pressures leaders on eve of Libya vote

AFP , Wednesday 19 Feb 2014

File Photo: Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan pauses after his address to the 22nd session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, in this file picture taken February 25, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

A threat by powerful militias to dissolve parliament ramped up pressure on Libya's weak central government Wednesday on the eve of a vote to elect a constitution-drafting panel.

The vote is the latest milestone in the chaotic transition following the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, but has generated little enthusiasm among Libyans frustrated by the government's inability to impose order on former rebels.

Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said late Tuesday a "compromise" had been reached with ex-rebel militias who had given Libya's interim assembly a deadline to hand over power.

Zeidan said the deadline had been extended by 72 hours but did not give further details of the compromise, telling journalists only that "wisdom has prevailed" after discussions with representatives from the militias, the assembly and the United Nations.

Powerful militias made up of former rebels from the western town of Zintan had given the General National Congress, the country's highest political authority, a late Tuesday deadline to quit, threatening to seize any lawmaker who ignored it.

The Zintan commanders criticised the GNC's decision to extend its mandate past a February 7 cut-off date.

One of the commanders, Jamal Habil, accused the parliament of "seizing power" and said it was trying to extend its mandate for as long as possible.

However, the deadline passed with no action taken, and Zeidan -- who himself was kidnapped and briefly held by armed men last year -- announced the "compromise."

The speaker of the GNC, Nuri Abu Sahmein, had earlier rejected the militias' ultimatum, calling it "a coup d'etat" and saying the army had been ordered to act against the militias, though no unusual troop movements were seen in Tripoli.

The move by the Zintan militias was also criticised by several other militias, political parties and civil society groups, which voiced support for the elected assembly.

Libyans are set to vote Thursday for a panel to draft a new constitution, but the polls have aroused none of the enthusiasm that attended its first free election in July 2012.

Yielding to popular pressure in the wake of street protests, the GNC agreed Sunday to hold early polls to elect new transitional authorities rather than wait for the constitution to be finalised.

Discussions are still under way on institutions that might replace the body -- a new congress, or a parliament and a president.

The charter is to cover key issues such as Libya's system of government, the status of ethnic minorities and the role of Islamic sharia law.

But only 1.1 million people have registered to vote, compared with more than 2.7 million in the 2012 polls for the interim parliament, from an electoral roll of 3.4 million.

And the country's Amazigh minority, which was to be granted two seats on the 60-member constitutional panel, said it would boycott the vote over a perceived lack of mechanisms to preserve its cultural heritage.

The Supreme Council of the Amazigh in Libya declared Thursday a day of mourning and asked people to wear black in protest, adding that it would not recognise the constitution.

In the more than two years since Gaddafi was captured and killed, former rebel brigades armed with heavy weapons looted from his arsenals have carved out fiefdoms across the sprawling country, with many refusing demands to disarm or join the armed forces.

The militias issuing Tuesday's ultimatum included the Al-Qaaqaa and Al-Sawaiq brigades, two of the most powerful and well-disciplined. They are both nominally loyal to the regular army.

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