One of Libya’s two bishops described the situation in the capital of Tripoli as calm following its takeover by an Islamist militia.
“The situation, to a certain extent, is under control, there is more serenity and calm than just a few days ago, and we no longer hear the explosion of bombs,” Bishop Giovanni Innocenzo Martinelli, Vicar Apostolic of Tripoli, told Fides news agency. “Let us hope that with the grace of God the situation may remain as it is.”
The Libyan capital fell to so-called Dawn of Libya Islamist militants after days fighting against an adversary coalition, but “so far, as a Christian community, we have had no trouble,” Bishop Martinelli said. “Our people, although few in numbers, come to church, we are still able to experience the joy of coming together. Next Friday we will celebrate the feast of Saint Teresa of Calcutta and we expect the faithful in large numbers.”
Libya is witnessing its worst spasm of violence since former dictator Moammar Gadhafi was toppled and killed in 2011.
The country’s divisions are deeply rooted in rivalries between Islamists and non-Islamists, as well as powerful tribal and regional allegiances between groups who quickly filled the power vacuum after Gadhafi’s ouster. Successive transitional governments have failed to control the militias.
Fighting in recent months has mostly engulfed the capital, Tripoli, and also Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city.
The militias in control of the capital, operating under an umbrella group called the Dawn of Libya, have also taken control of the U.S. embassy compound, a week after they drove out rival militias. A State Department official said the compound "remains secure."
A commander for the Dawn of Libya group, Moussa Abu-Zaqia, told the Associated Press that his forces had been guarding the residential compound of the U.S. Embassy since last week, a day after it seized control of the capital and its international airport after weeks of fighting with a rival militia.
On Tuesday, Libya’s official news agency said calm returned to Tripoli, with some banks resuming work and shops and bakeries reopening. Traffic also picked up in the capital and there were long lines outside gas stations. Some families who fled the fighting areas have returned to their homes, the agency said.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said the department is seeking additional information but believed the embassy compound "remains secure."
The official said the U.S. had moved embassy staff from Tripoli to Valletta, Malta, because of "ongoing fighting between militias occurring very close to our compound." Those personnel "remain engaged," the official said, while the State Department continues to work with the Libyan government.
The Dawn of Libya militia is not associated with the extremist militia Ansar al-Shariah, which Washington blames for the deadly assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and the three other Americans.
Libya’s militias, many of which originate from rebel forces that fought Gadhafi, have become powerful players in post-war Libya. Successive governments have put militias on their payroll in return for maintaining order, but rivalries over control and resources have led to fierce fighting among them and posed a constant challenge to the central government and a hoped-for transition to democracy.
According to the Franciscan website The Catholic Church in Libya, Catholics in Libya have two places of worship, in Tripoli and Benghazi. "The priests give their services to more than 25,000 Catholics from different nationalities and to 24 nuns who are working in hospitals, health and Caritas centers in various places," the website says.
“Please continue to pray for Libya, that we may find peace once again” Bishop Martinelli concluded in his message to Fides.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.