TRIPOLI, Libya — More than a thousand inmates escaped a prison Saturday in Libya as protesters stormed political party offices across the country, signs of the simmering unrest gripping a nation overrun by militias and awash in weaponry.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the jailbreak at al-Kweifiya prison came as part of the demonstrations. Protesters had massed across Libya over the killing of an activist critical of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood group.
Inmates started a riot and set fires after security forces opened fire on three detainees who tried to escape the facility outside of Benghazi, a security official at al-Kweifiya prison said. Gunmen quickly arrived to the prison after news of the riot spread, opening fire with rifles outside in a bid to free their imprisoned relatives, a Benghazi-based security official said.
Those who escaped either face or were convicted of serious charges, the prison official said.
The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to speak to journalists.
Special forces later arrested 18 of the escapees, while some returned on their own, said Mohammed Hejazi, a government security official in Benghazi. The three inmates wounded in the initial escape attempt were taken to a local hospital, he said.
There was confusion, however, about how many prisoners exactly broke out, with numbers of escapees ranging as high as 1,200.
At a news conference, Prime Minister Ali Zidan blamed the jailbreak on those living around the prison.
“The prison was (attacked) by the citizens who live nearby because they don’t want a prison in their region” he said. “Special forces were present and could have got the situation under control by using their arms but they had received orders not (use) their weapons on citizens … so the citizens opened the doors to the prisoners.”
Zidan said an alert would be sent to border posts about the jailbreak and officers would receive a list of the escapees’ names.
Benghazi’s security is among the most precarious in post-revolution Libya. Last year, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in the city.
Meanwhile Saturday, hundreds gathered in the capital Tripoli after dawn prayers, denouncing the Friday shooting death of Abdul-Salam Al-Musmari. They set fire to tires in the street and demanded the dissolution of Islamist parties.
The two incidents highlighted Libya’s deteriorating security situation and the challenges the North African country faces as it tries to restore calm nearly two years after the ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
In Tripoli, protesters appeared to be inspired by events in neighboring Egypt, where millions took to the streets Friday to answer a call from the army chief, who said he wanted a mandate to stop “potential terrorism” by supporters of the country’s ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood.
“We don’t want the Brotherhood, we want the army and the police,” Libyan protesters chanted, repeating a slogan also used in Egypt. Libya’s nascent security forces are struggling to control the country’s militias, most of whom have roots in the rebel groups that overthrew Gadhafi in 2011.
The activist Al-Musmari, who used to publicly criticize the Brotherhood, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Benghazi.
Some protesters stormed the headquarters of a Brotherhood-affiliated political party and another Islamist-allied party in the capital, destroying furniture. Witnesses say demonstrators also stormed a Brotherhood party in Benghazi.
Protesters angry with the Libya’s weak central government also targeted the liberal National Forces Alliance, ransacking its headquarters. The party came on top in Libya’s first free parliamentary elections last year.
Security forces in Libya have been unable to impose their authority on the country since Gadhafi’s ouster. Militias, many made up of former rebels who fought in the civil war that toppled Gadhafi, have grown in the strength and in many areas rival the security forces in their firepower and reach. The armed forces also rely on militias for help securing the country in some cases.
On Saturday, a colonel was killed by gunmen in Benghazi. Another three security members were killed a day earlier when gunmen opened fire on them. Security members are frequently targets in the country.
Zidan, the prime minister, said that an investigation was launched into the circumstances around al-Musmari’s slaying. He said a foreign criminal investigation team will join Libyan investigators in Tripoli and Benghazi on Monday. He did not offer further details.
New York-based Human Rights Watch urged the Libyan government to “conduct a prompt and thorough investigation” of al-Musmari’s death, believed to be the first targeted killing of a political activist.
“Libya’s fragile transition is at stake if political killings go unpunished,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This makes investigating al-Musmari’s murder all the more urgent.”