US, EU urge political solution in Libya's standoff

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Photo - In this image made from video provided by the Libyan national army via AP Television, smoke rises over the parliament area after troops of Gen. Khalifa Hifter targeted Islamist lawmakers and officials at the parliament in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Forces loyal to a rogue Libyan general attacked the country's parliament Sunday, expanding his eastern offensive against Islamists into the heart of the country's capital. (AP Photo/Libyan national army)
In this image made from video provided by the Libyan national army via AP Television, smoke rises over the parliament area after troops of Gen. Khalifa Hifter targeted Islamist lawmakers and officials at the parliament in Tripoli, Libya, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Forces loyal to a rogue Libyan general attacked the country's parliament Sunday, expanding his eastern offensive against Islamists into the heart of the country's capital. (AP Photo/Libyan national army)
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TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — The U.S. Embassy and European missions in Tripoli on Friday expressed concern over the escalating violence in Libya, where a renegade general's offensive against Islamists threatens to further split the North African nation.

The statement came as thousands of residents took to the streets in the Libyan capital and in the restive eastern city of Benghazi in support of renegade Gen. Khalifa Hifter, waiving Libyan flags and chanting his name.

Many carried banners reading, "No to terrorism" and "We want a nation with dignity, not a state of militias." Similar protests took place in the cities of Ajdabiya and Gharghour.

Security was beefed up around the protests, but no violence was reported.

The renegade general has launched a week-long military offensive, saying he wants to crush Islamist militias that are backed by Libya's Islamist-dominated parliament. Hifter has also said he seeks to impose stability after three years of chaos following the ouster and death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in the 2011 civil war.

Since then, Libya has been plagued by a weak central government, lawlessness and out-of control militias that have taken over in the absence of a strong army and police force.

The standoff between the Islamists and Hifter's allies has developed into a potential power battle as many of the militias line up behind either of the two camps.

Over the past two years, Tripoli and Benghazi residents have repeatedly tried to stage demonstrations against the militias, which they blame for the violence. But the rallies have turned deadly on many occasions as militiamen attacked and killed protesters.

Hifter's campaign started last Friday in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the birthplace of the anti-Gadhafi uprising. Hifter's followers bombed the city's outskirts and forced Islamist militias to withdraw from their compounds. Dozens were killed in the clashes.

The confrontation later spread to Tripoli, where Hifter's allies stormed and ransacked the parliament before withdrawing to the area near the airport highway.

The rogue general's campaign has drawn support from ranking officials, military officers and troops, and has plunged Libya deeper into uncertainty.

On Friday, the United States, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom urged for a political solution to the confrontation in a joint statement published on the American Embassy's website.

The statement called on all sides to "address differences by political means" and "refrain from the use of force."

"Persistent divisions among Libyans will gravely challenge the ability of the international community to assist Libya," it added.

On Tuesday, Libya's election commission set new parliamentary elections for June 25 in an effort to try to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

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