Attackers bulldozed a mosque containing Sufi Muslim graves in the centre of Tripoli in broad daylight on Saturday, in what appeared to be Libya’s most blatant sectarian attack since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
Government officials condemned the demolition of the large Sha’ab mosque and blamed an armed group who, they said, considered its graves and shrines to Sufi figures un-Islamic.
It was the second razing of a Sufi site in two days. Ultra-conservative Islamists wrecked Sufi shrines with bombs and another bulldozer and set fire to a mosque library in the city of Zlitan in the early hours of Friday, an official said.
Libya’s rulers have struggled to control armed groups who are competing for power in the north African country a year after Gaddafi’s fall.
The president of Libya’s newly elected National Congress, Mohamed al-Magariaf, called the prime minister to an emergency meeting on Sunday.
“What is truly regrettable and suspicious is that some of those who took part in these destruction activities are supposed to be of the security forces and from the revolutionaries,” Magariaf told reporters on Saturday night.
He did not elaborate on how security forces took part.
A Reuters reporter saw the bulldozer level the Sha’ab mosque as police surrounded the site and prevented people from approaching and did not stop the demolition.
Inside the mosque, empty graves lay gaping in the rubble.
“A large number of armed militias carrying medium and heavy weapons arrived at the al-Sha’ab mosque with the intention to destroy the mosque because of their belief graves are anti-Islamic,” said a government official who declined to be named.
He told Reuters that authorities tried to stop them but, after a small clash, decided to seal off the area while the demolition took place to prevent any violence spreading.
“The SSC (Libya’s Supreme Security Council) joins the ... condemnation,” said council spokesman Abdel Moneim al-Hurr.
A man who appeared to be overseeing the demolition told Reuters the interior ministry had authorized the operation after discovering people had been worshipping the graves and practicing “black magic.” The ministry was not available for comment.
One of Libya’s highest-profile cultural clashes since the toppling of Gaddafi has been between followers of the mystical Sufi tradition and ultra-conservative Salafis, who say Islam should return to the simple ways followed by its prophet.
Salafis have formed a number of armed brigades in Libya. They reject as idolatrous many Sufi devotions - which include dancing and the building of shrines to venerated figures.
Conservative Muslims across the region - emboldened by the Arab Spring revolts - have targeted Sufi sites in Egypt, Mali and other parts of Libya over the past year.
The assaults recalled the 2001 dynamiting by the Taliban of two 6th-century statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.
The Sha’ab mosque housed close to 50 Sufi graves inside and, outside, the tombs of Libyan Sufi scholar Abdullah al-Sha’ab and a martyr who fought Spanish colonialists.
On Friday attackers razed the revered resting place of Abdel Salam al-Asmar in Zlitan, about 160 km (90 miles) west of the capital, and also set fire to a historic library in a nearby mosque, ruining thousands of books.
The destruction followed two days of clashes between tribal groups in Zlitan, said a local official.
“The extremist Salafis took advantage (of the fact) that security officials were busy calming down the clashes and they desecrated the shrine,” Zlitan military council official Omar Ali told Reuters.
Sufi scholar and caretaker of the Asmar shrine in Zlitan Mohammed Salem said the government was coming under increasing political pressure from ultra-conservatives.
A Facebook page titled “Together for the Removal of the Abdel Salam al-Asmar Shrine” congratulated supporters on the “successful removal of the Asmar shrine, the largest sign of idolatry in Libya.”