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Deadly fighting in Libya's capital sparks fears of wider conflict


Intense fighting has broken out in Libya's capital. Authorities in Tripoli say more than 30 people died and dozens more were wounded in clashes yesterday between militias backed by two rival administrations. The violence threatens to end two years of relative peace in a country that has been riddled with conflict since a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. Jalel Harchaoui is a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and focuses on security and politics in Libya. Thank you very much for joining us.

JALEL HARCHAOUI: Thank you for having me.

GURA: Give us a sense, if you would, of what the last 24 hours have been like in Tripoli.

HARCHAOUI: There has been basically a series of advances, not particularly violent but scary for the government that is inside the capital. And all those militias moving were basically aligned with the other prime minister that has been outside of the capital for the last five months. Basically, the measures taken by the existing government, the incumbent prime minister, were very harsh and very violent and was able to defeat the challenger.

GURA: Where do things stand right now? Is the fighting still going on?

HARCHAOUI: No, it has been very calm because of the very definite defeat that I was referring to. I don't expect violence to resume again simply because the whole battle basically unfolded in one day.

GURA: Give us a sense here of the context behind these clashes, more of why these militias are fighting each other and fighting each other now.

HARCHAOUI: Well, one prime minister has been able to show a lot of skills in his ability to retain power. He was supposed to leave in December. The elections that were scheduled by the U.N. failed to materialize. And he has been able to effectively build a very resilient system in terms of staying in power. Other factions in the country don't accept this, including his rival prime minister, who has been working with militias, a lot of them local to Tripoli, the Libyan capital, to try and topple the other one. It's just that it didn't work out. The other one was very well-organized and very well-coordinated and came out on top.

GURA: You mentioned there's calm now. How worried are you that there could be future fights, and that could perhaps complicate efforts to hold elections that have been postponed?

HARCHAOUI: Yeah, I'm worried about this conclusion that seems to emerge - is that one prime minister seems to be very, very skilled at his ability to retain power on a de facto basis. He hasn't been elected. So this could go on for years. And his enemies could also organize some other way of trying to topple him. This is something that I don't rule out for the next several weeks or several months.

GURA: I saw a statement from the U.S. ambassador to Libya calling for an immediate cease-fire and for U.N.-facilitated talks between these two conflicting parties. What's the state of diplomacy? What's the status of the conversations that are taking place between these two sides, if at all?

HARCHAOUI: Well, those phrases that you're referring to used by the ambassador have become empty cliches. They have been repeated for months and months, you know, if not years. The same phrases were used last year. People thought the elections were going to be organized. Nothing happened, and the people in power are still in power. So I think U.S. diplomacy and other Western diplomacy should be refreshed, should be renewed, and a new technique should be used because Libyans have learned to ignore everything you said. I mean, this discourse by the internationals is absolutely ignored by Libyans and foreign states, as well.

GURA: Jalel Harchaoui is a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and focuses on security and politics in Libya. Thank you very much for your time.

HARCHAOUI: Have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Gura
Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.