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Libya announces elections: Will it help calm the violence?

By Jomana Karadsheh and Ben Brumfield, CNN
May 20, 2014 -- Updated 2159 GMT (0559 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Libya announces a date for parliamentary elections
  • Gen. Khalifa Haftar bombed Islamists blamed for attack on U.S. Consulate in Benghazi
  • Armed men declaring loyalty to Haftar have "suspended" the parliament in Tripoli
  • Libyan special forces commander near Benghazi vows to join Haftar

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- Libya on Tuesday set a date for parliamentary elections in a move intended to stave off the possibility of civil war, even as the U.S. military remained poised to evacuate Americans amid escalating violence.

Libya announced elections will take place June 25 in a bid that some observers hope may help defuse rising tensions, the state news agency LANA reported.

The latest developments come as increasing military might appears to be rallying behind a renegade local general who is taking the fight to Islamist militias. The country's burgeoning political process has been mired in near paralysis amid divisions between Libya's political forces.

Hostilities have increased since Gen. Khalifa Haftar bombed the bases of Islamist groups on Friday, including the one blamed for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Marines prepare for embassy evacuation
Attacks claim dozens of lives in Libya

The retired officer, who fought to overthrow former dictator Moammar Gadhafi, launched a land and air offensive in Benghazi against Ansar al-Sharia and Islamist militias loyal to the interim national government. He has vowed to not stop until the extremists groups are "purged."

The resulting battle claimed 75 lives.

Parliament itself is polarized, with Islamists on one side and their opponents on the other. Fighting has paralyzed the government, hindered elections and cost the interim administration its legitimacy in the eyes of many Libyans.

As of Tuesday, only 1.3 million Libyans out of an estimated 3.4 million eligible voters had registered to vote in the elections, according to the website for Libya's Higher National Elections Commission.

During the country's last election in February, only 14% of eligible voters participated. Boycotts and violence in some cities affected that vote.

U.S. prepares evacuations

The U.S. military is preparing to evacuate American citizens out of harm's way.

As violence spread on Sunday and Monday, the U.S. military doubled the number of aircraft standing by in Italy if needed to evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.

Four additional U.S. V-22 Osprey aircraft at the naval base in Sigonella were to join the four V-22s and 200 Marines that had been moved there last week, a U.S. defense source said.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said at a briefing Tuesday that about 250 Marines plus seven Ospreys and three C-130 planes were in place as "a precaution, a prudent measure." He said that no decision had been made to close the embassy but that one of the lessons of the Benghazi incident was the "need to be more agile."

The planes can be in the air on six hours' notice. With the additional aircraft, the military should be able to evacuate more than 200 people from the embassy.

Gathering pressure on Islamists

Haftar has vowed to rid Benghazi and the rest of Libya of Islamist militants with his self-declared Libyan National Army.

Other members of the army and militiamen were quick to declare allegiance to the newly conceived army.

And on Sunday, fighters armed with heavy weapons stormed the General National Congress, forcing it to adjourn and putting lawmakers on the run in Tripoli.

Later that evening, a commander appeared on television to declare that Parliament would be suspended. He claimed to represent Haftar's Libyan National Army.

It's unclear whether there was any coordination of the attacks in Tripoli and Benghazi by forces claiming loyalty to the Libyan National Army. But their common enemy is clear: Libya's Islamists.

Islamist pushback

The Parliament's attackers met with swift opposition when congress speaker Nuri Abu Sahmain, who is backed by Islamist militias, ordered troops of the Central Libya Shield Forces to deploy to the capital Monday.

But the local council in the city of Misrata, east of Tripoli, and the city's Central Libya Shield Forces released statements on Tuesday evening indicating that they were not taking sides in the crisis.

In the statement, the Misrata council said that it stood by the Libyan people against "terrorism and fundamentalism" but that it would not accept a "military dictatorship." The council said it was ready for "national dialogue" to lift the country "out of this dark tunnel."

One of the Islamists' main rivals, the al-Qaaqaa Brigade, said it was involved in the attack on Parliament. The militia is based out of the city of Zintan but active in Tripoli and linked to elements in government.

Gunfire from armed skirmishes spread through town Sunday and crackled through its outskirts into Monday night. At least four people died and 90 sustained injuries in the fighting, the Health Ministry said.

Turmoil in Libya: Fighting sweeps across Tripoli following violence in Benghazi

Rallying point

The interim government immediately condemned Haftar's assault on Friday and his vendetta, but his movement has gained clout with Libyan special forces battling Islamist militias.

On Monday, a well-respected military commander in the east came out in support of Haftar's Operation Dignity, the name for the anti-Islamist campaign.

Col. Wanis Bukhamada of the al-Saeqa special forces placed the soldiers and officers under his command behind the Libyan National Army offensive.

He vowed to join the fight against "criminal Takfiri gangs that are toying with the country's security ... carrying out kidnappings, assassinations, killings, beheadings and burning the bodies of members of the police and army and civilians."

Ansar al-Sharia was already a thorn in Buhkamada's side, as he has fought the Islamists in recent months.

Militia loyalties became fractured after Gadhafi's fall. During the revolution, Libya became awash in weapons, and militias formed with sundry affiliations with tribes, towns or religious extremism.

Libya evacuation decision 'minute by minute,' U.S. official says

CNN's Jomana Karadsheh reported from Tripoli; Ben Brumfield wrote in Atlanta; CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

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