CAIRO (AP) - Amnesty International on Wednesday urged for the release of at least six protesters abducted when armed men, apparently allied with Libya’s U.N.-supported government, fired live ammunition to disperse a demonstration in the capital.
The incident took place on Sunday when protesters rallied in Tripoli and elsewhere in western Libya against deteriorating economic conditions and corruption. Amnesty said armed men in military uniform opened fire on the crowd without warning, using AK-style rifles and truck-mounted guns.
The Interior Ministry accused “outlawed infiltrators” of firing at the protesters on Sunday and said an investigation was opened.
The London-based group said that along with the six abducted, several protesters were wounded in the shooting, which happened in an area that’s under control of the Nawasi militia that nominally operates under the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli.
Amnesty said, citing eyewitness accounts and its Nawasi contacts, that there were “strong indications that this militia was behind the attack” on the protesters.
The protests continued Wednesday for the fourth day in row. Footage circulated online showed demonstrators marching and chanting slogans against the U.N.-backed government.
Militiamen also opened fire at the protesters in Tripoli’s Martyrs Square, which was the scene of Sunday’s attack, according to a protester who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. He said dozens of protesters were detained and their whereabouts were unknown.
Interior Minister Fathi Bashaga acknowledged that a Tripoli-allied militia fired live ammunition at peaceful protesters. He said in a statement early Thursday that the militias, which it did not name, abducted some of the protesters who were forcefully disappeared.
Meanwhile, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj Monday said in televised comments that the protesters “did not obtain necessary permits” for the rally. In a meeting with military and security officials Wednesday, he described the demonstrations as “riots,” according to a statement from his office.
He also announced a 24-hour curfew lasting four days to fight the coronavirus, a move protesters say is meant to stop their continued rallies. The protesters defied Sarraj’s decision and took to the streets after his announcement., before being dispersed by militias.
Libya has seen a surge in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, with most of the cases in the country’s west. So far, authorities have reported more than 11,800 cases, including 210 deaths, though the actual numbers are thought to be far higher, in part due to limited testing.
Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty’s deputy regional director, criticized Sarraj’s government for not reining in abusive, unaccountable militias and armed groups” and instead “relying on them for security, law enforcement and fighting its rivals.”
She urged for an immediate release of those abducted and called for an independent investigation, as did the U.N. mission in Libya. It said the protests were motivated by frustrations about sustained poor living conditions, shortages of electricity and water and a lack of services throughout the country.
Protests over the deteriorating economic situation continued this week in Tripoli and western Libyan towns backed by the U.N.-supported government. There were also protests in the southern town of Sabah and the eastern town of Quba, both under control of Sarraj’s rival, troops under commander Khalifa Hifter, Amnesty said.
Sarraj’s Cabinet last week proposed a cease-fire across the oil-rich country and called for demilitarizing the strategic city of Sirte, controlled by Hifter’s forces. Hifter on Sunday dismissed the cease-fire offer.
His spokesman, Ahmed al-Mosmari, warned of Turkish warships approaching the coast of Sirte, allegedly to enforce the Tripoli-allied militias preparing to attack the city. There was no immediate comment from Ankara.
The proposal, which came after international pressure, was seen as a breakthrough amid rising fears of a new escalation in the chaotic proxy war, as rival sides mobilize for a battle over Sirte. Hifter’s rejection of the offer has added to those concerns.
Oil-rich Libya was plunged into chaos when a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who was later killed. The country is now split between rival east- and west-based administrations, each backed by different armed groups and foreign governments.
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