TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A Libyan army colonel was killed in an ambush on his brigade in the country’s south on Friday, the unit’s spokesman said, in the latest incident of violence in the North African country.
Separately, in the eastern city of Benghazi, an independent TV station reported an unknown attacker hurled a hand grenade at its building.
The violence underscores the instability that has rocked Libya nearly a year after the capture and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, particularly as the country’s police and military struggle to reign in militias and build up their forces.
Brigade spokesman Ali el-Abed said his unit had been delivering army vehicles from the capital Tripoli to the southern city of Sabha when they came under attack by gunmen around 100 kilometers (62 miles) from their destination.
The ambush occurred in the town of Kira, considered a bastion of Gadhafi loyalists.
El-Abed said that just before the ambush, a militia from the city of Zawiya, just south of Tripoli, had stopped the military convoy for two hours near the town of Brak to check paperwork. El-Abed said the convoy came under attack after the militia gave it the green light to pass the checkpoint.
He said he holds the “Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade”, a militia that is aligned with the military, responsible for the attack that killed Col. Omar Salah. The militia could not be immediately reached for comment.
Three wounded soldiers and a number of assailants were transported to Tripoli hospitals, el-Abed added.
A military official in Sabha, where the unit is based, said three assailants were also killed in the fighting. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Libya’s nascent security forces still rely on the help of militias to maintain security throughout the country. The militias, which are rooted in the rebel groups that fought to oust Gadhafi, have been accused by rights groups and Libyan officials of acting with impunity and using the threat of violence for political gains.
Earlier this week, 31 people were killed in an anti-militia protest in the east. The new interim chief of staff said afterward that while some of the nation’s militias had roots in the struggle against Gadhafi, many others did not. He also accused some former rebel groups of adopting private agendas and said they will have to lay down their arms or join the army by year’s end.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said Friday that the violence at the protest, in which mostly civilians died, “underscores the need for the government to rein in armed groups.”
“The government also needs to end the impunity for militia abuses that prompted this demonstration in the first place. Its incoherent policy toward militias endangers any prospects for the rule of law,” said Eric Goldstein, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Human Rights Watch.
The group says it has documented numerous abuses and violations by militias, including forced disappearances and torture that sometimes led to death. Several thousand detainees are still being held by militias illegally and without judicial review — some in secret detention facilities.
Benghazi was also the site of an attack last September on the U.S. consulate that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Meanwhile, Libya’s culture ministry strongly condemned attempts to intimidate the media after the country’s first independent TV station was attacked by unknown assailants. An employee at Libya Al-Hurra, Tareq el-Issawi, said a colleague was injured in the minor explosion. The channel often runs commentary that is supportive of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood political party.
Also on Friday, London-based Amnesty International condemned charges leveled against two politicians who published a cartoon on women’s rights deemed to be offensive to Islam. The two face the death penalty over the cartoon, which called for gender equality and women’s rights and was circulated on an electoral campaign poster for the Libyan National Party last June, the human rights group said.
Amnesty said the men, Ali Tekbali and Fathi Sager, appear to be the first to be tried on such charges since Gadhafi’s ouster.
The party’s offices were raided and closed last year by Libyan military forces who were acting on orders issued by state prosecutors.