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Libya's parliament ducks fighting to meet in eastern city of Tobruk

Libyan parliament avoids Tripoli to meet in Tobruk, far from battle lines

Libya's newly elected parliament gathered for the first time Saturday, choosing the relatively peaceful eastern city of Tobruk to avoid the deteriorating security situation in the capital, Tripoli.

The emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in the North African country was attended by 152 of the 200 parliament members elected in May. But an official session will not be convened until more representatives arrive, according to Abu Bakr Baiera, an anti-Islamist attorney and member of parliament who presided over the meeting.

At least 200 people have been killed and more than 900 injured in battles between Islamists and the Libyan army that erupted July 13.

In Tripoli, an Islamist militia from the western city of Misurata has been fighting to wrest control of Libya's international airport from the Zintan armed group, which has been guarding the facility on behalf of the government since 2011. 

In Libya's second-biggest city, Benghazi, the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia militia has been involved in similar battles with government troops and forces led by rogue Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar, who fought against Moammar Kadafi in the 2011 uprising, had initiated "Operation Dignity" last May, aimed at ridding Libya of Islamist militias. He was joined later by army forces.

His efforts suffered a setback when Ansar al-Sharia, fighting under the umbrella of an Islamist coalition, the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, took control of the city's special forces base before declaring Benghazi an "Islamic Emirate" last Wednesday.

While speculation grew that Haftar might have fled to neighboring Egypt, his spokesman came out to confirm that the general remained in Libya.

"Gen. Haftar is here and in good health and high morale, and he is the one leading the battles and organizing the ranks for massive military operations," Operation Dignity's official spokesman, Col. Mohamed Hegazi, told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

Hegazi called the withdrawal of Haftar's troops from Benghazi a "tactical move." He also contradicted reports that Islamic groups controlled Benghazi, and accused Qatar and Turkey of providing arms and fighters to Islamist militias.

Libya's elected officials have struggled to stem the rise of armed Islamist groups across the country since Kadafi's ouster. 

Hassan is a special correspondent based in Cairo.

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