Libya unrest

Former rebel fighters who are now integrated into the Libyan army are seen May 19 guarding the western entrance of Tripoli, the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP/ Getty Images / May 19, 2014)

Libyan lawmakers met in hiding Tuesday, two days after forces loyal to a renegade ex-general stormed the parliament building and demanded that the Islamist-dominated body disband.

Onetime general Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against Islamists and their allied militias, launched last week in the eastern city of Benghazi, threatened to escalate into the worst fighting Libya has seen in the three years since an uprising ousted and killed dictator Moammar Kadafi.

It also posed a stark challenge to the weak central government, which has flailed in its attempts to establish order.

In a conciliatory gesture, the country’s election commission called for new elections on June 25, the official news agency LANA reported. It was not immediately clear whether lawmakers -- whose mandate has already expired -- would attempt to oppose that plan.

In an interview published Tuesday in the London-based pan-Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Haftar defended his actions, declaring that the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the biggest parliamentary blocs, was a “malignancy” that must be eradicated.

The Brotherhood issued a statement denouncing his armed actions but also urging political accommodation.

The former general broke with Kadafi in the 1990s and fled into exile in the suburbs of Washington before returning home to fight in the 2011 rebellion. He has decried the Islamists who came to political prominence in the wake of Kadafi's fall and are backed, like virtually all Libyan political factions, by armed militias.

A previous anti-government campaign launched by Haftar in February was a flop, but this time he has proved himself a force to be reckoned with. In his home base of Benghazi, the government has been unable to stem a campaign of assassinations and attacks against security forces, despite public pleas for better security, and his assault Friday on Islamist bases had broad backing.

Haftar had been planning the offensive for the last two years, he told the paper.

In moving against the Islamists, the former general garnered the support of some army units, including an elite force that threw in its lot with him Monday and an Interior Ministry unit that declared its allegiance Tuesday.

In the interview, Haftar insisted that his offensive has not been a power grab -- but also said he would be willing to serve as president if it were “the will of the people.”

The outbreak of chaos in Libya is causing diplomats and foreign businesses alike to reconsider their presence in the energy-rich North African nation. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Algeria are shutting down their missions in the capital, and a major Algerian oil concern, Sonatrach, has pulled out its employees.

Hassan is a special correspondent.