Libya's Interior Ministry, along with the country's the U.N. ambassador and the commander of the air force, backed a renegade general's offensive against Islamist lawmakers and extremist militias, further building support Wednesday for a campaign the government has described as a coup.
The show of support for Gen. Khalifa Hifter appears to have triggered a heavy backlash.
Libya's navy chief Brig. Gen. Hassan Abu-Shanaq, some of whose units have allied with Hifter, was wounded in an assassination attempt in the capital, Tripoli, early Wednesday, along with his driver and a guard, the official news agency LANA said. The night before, the air forces headquarters in Tripoli came under a rocket attack but no casualties were reported.
Hifter has been leading an armed revolt in perhaps the biggest challenge yet to the country's weak central government and fledgling security forces. He says his campaign, dubbed "Operation Dignity," aims to break the power of Islamists who lead parliament and whom he accuses of opening the door to extremism and fueling Libya's chaos.
Scores of Libyan military units and commanders have made already made loyalty pledges to Hifter's "Libyan National Army" and his offensive, which began Friday, first against Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi. A number of powerful militias also back Hifter, including ones from the western city of Zintan and Benghazi, Libya's second largest city.
Islamists in parliament are backed by other militias, particularly from Misrata, Libya's third largest city.
The myriad militias in Libya — which are split by rivalries and competing agendas — have been the real power in the country since the 2011 ouster and death of Moammar Gadhafi. They are far better armed than the weak police forces or military, which were shattered during the 2011 civil war and never recovered. Their lining up behind Hifter and his opponents runs the risk of an outright conflict between them.
Wednesday's declaration of support for Hifter from the Interior Ministry, in charge of police, appeared to signal a fragmenting in the interim government installed earlier this year by parliament. In a statement posted on its Facebook page, the ministry called on all its forces to join "Operation Dignity," calling it "the will of the people."
"The Libyan police have always been on the side of the people and supports its dreams of building a civil state in which terrorism has no trace," it said.
It was not clear if the statement spoke for the whole ministry or was a sign of splits within it. The post of interior minister has been empty since last year. Because the police forces are so weak, the ministry had to bring a number of militias under its mandate to perform security duties. Some units of the ministry, including the elite Special Forces in Benghazi, had already announced support for Hifter.
A militia umbrella group that backs parliament's Islamists, the Libyan Revolutionaries Operation Room, called on militia fighters working under the Interior Ministry and military to withdraw, calling Hifter's offensive "a military coup aimed only at taking over power."
For the past several days, clashes between pro- and anti-Hifter militias have been taking place near a main camp outside Tripoli where the Operation Room group is based.