TRIPOLI, Libya – More than a thousand inmates escaped a prison in Libya Saturday as protesters stormed political party offices across the country, signs of the simmering unrest gripping a nation overrun by militias and awash in weaponry.
It wasn’t immediately clear if the jailbreak at al-Kweifiya prison came as part of the demonstrations, which saw protesters mass across Libya over the killing of an activist critical of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood group.
Inmates started a riot and set fires after security forces opened fire on three detainees who tried to escape the facility outside Benghazi, a security official at al-Kweifiya prison said.
Gunmen quickly arrived at the prison after news of the riot spread, opening fire with rifles in a bid to free their imprisoned relatives.
Special forces later arrested 18 of the escapees, while some returned on their own, said Mohammed Hejazi, a government security official in Benghazi. The three inmates wounded in the initial escape attempt were taken to a local hospital, he said.
Benghazi’s security is among the most precarious in post-revolution Libya. Last year, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in the city.
Meanwhile Saturday, hundreds gathered in the capital Tripoli after dawn prayers, denouncing the Friday shooting death of Abdul-Salam Al-Musmari, a leading activist and vocal critic of the country’s Islamists. They set fire to tires in the street and demanded the dissolution of Islamist parties.
The two incidents highlighted Libya’s deteriorating security situation and the challenges the North African country faces as it tries to restore calm nearly two years after the ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The Tripoli protesters appeared to be inspired by events in neighboring Egypt, where millions took to the streets Friday to answer a call from the army chief, who said he wanted a mandate to stop “potential terrorism” by supporters of the country’s ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood.