The internationally recognized Libyan government suspended its interior minister on Friday, saying its handling of street protests and a violent crackdown against them would be investigated.
The move coincides with reports of growing friction between Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the Tripoli-based National Accord Government (GNA) and Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, an influential figure in the port city and the Misrata military base.
In a statement Friday evening, the GNA said Bashagha “has been temporarily suspended” and will face an investigation “into his statements regarding protests and incidents in Tripoli and other cities”.
He will be questioned about the permits granted to the demonstrators, the security arrangements in place and the “violations committed”, he said.
Bashagha, who was appointed in 2018, played a central role in a 14-month offensive in Tripoli by eastern-based forces that the GNA repelled in June with military support from Turkey.
He is well regarded by international supporters of the GNA and has announced measures to contain the armed groups that hold real power in Tripoli. Loud gunshots could be heard over central Tripoli shortly after the suspension decision was announced.
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In a decree, al-Sarraj said Bashagha would be investigated by GNA leaders within 72 hours and his duties would be assumed by a deputy minister, Khalid Ahmad Mazen.
A separate decree assigned a regional force led by Osama Jweili, a commander from another militarily powerful city, Zintan, to help provide security in Tripoli.
Bashagha expressed his availability for an investigation in a statement, but said it should be televised to ensure transparency.
Since Sunday, protests against deteriorating living conditions and corruption have intensified in Tripoli.
Gunmen used gunfire to disperse protesters and al-Serraj imposed a 24-hour curfew for four days to tackle the novel coronavirus, a move seen by critics as a tactic to curb protests.
Bashagha had previously said the gunmen fired “live ammunition indiscriminately” and kidnapped demonstrators, “causing panic among the population and threatening security and public order”.
He also pledged to “protect unarmed civilians from the brutality of a gang of thugs.”
There have long been tensions between the armed groups in Tripoli and Misrata. Those from Misrata dominated the capital for several years after Libya split into rival factions based in the west and east of the country in 2014. They then lost their foothold in favor of groups rooted in Tripoli.