Islamic hard-line militias, including the group accused by the United States in a 2012 attack that killed the ambassador and three other Americans, claimed control of Libya's second largest city, Benghazi, after overrunning army barracks and seizing heavy weapons.
The sweep in the eastern city is part of a new backlash by hard-liners against their rivals ahead of the sitting of a new parliament. In the capital Tripoli, escalating battles yesterday between militias prompted multiple foreign governments to scramble to get out their citizens as thousands of Libyans fled across the border into Tunisia.
The weeks-long surge of violence renewed fears that Libya, which has been in chaos since the 2011 civil war that ousted longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, is plunging deeper into civil strife.
With a crippled central government and weak army and police, the country's numerous rival militias have held sway in Libya for the past three years. Though they battled each other frequently, a balance of fear among them prevented any from going too far and forced them to divide areas of power. But now, there militias led by Islamist and extremist commanders appear to be trying to gain a more decisive upper hand.
The Health Ministry said in a statement yesterday that the death toll in Tripoli since the violence intensified in the past month reached 214, with more than 981 people wounded. Militias allied to Islamist politicians have been fighting for weeks to wrest control of Tripoli's airport from rival militias, destroying much of the airport in the process.
Yesterday, witnesses said that random rocket fire hit houses and vehicles in western Tripoli, sending residents fleeing. Shelling hit a funeral in a southern district, killing four children and three women from a single family, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the press.
Yesterday evening, thousands of residents marched into Tripoli's central Martyrs Square in a protest denouncing militias. They raised banners reading, "Libya only" and "Enough bloodshed."
Tripoli residents said fuel and gasoline shortages were worsening, and food prices had leaped. "All of this is caused by political parties that are fighting for power," said Abdelfattah Alghanai, a man shopping for vegetables.
Yesterday, by noon, more than 10,000 Libyans fled by land across the border into neighbouring Tunisia over the previous 12 hours, Tunisia's state news agency reported. They joined thousands of other Libyans who have already streamed into Tunisia in recent days. Spain announced it was pulling its ambassador and most embassy staff out of Tripoli.