TRIPOLI, Libya — More than 1,000 inmates escaped from a prison in Libya on 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 whether the jailbreak at al-Kweifiya prison, outside the eastern city of Benghazi, came as part of the demonstrations. Protesters had massed across Libya over the killing in that city of an activist critical of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood group.
Inmates started a riot and set blazes after security forces opened fire on three detainees who tried to escape the facility, a security official at al-Kweifiya prison said. Gunmen quickly arrived after news of the riot spread, opening fire with rifles outside in a bid to free their imprisoned relatives, a Benghazi-based security official said.
Those who escaped either face or were convicted of serious charges, the prison official said.
The two officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to journalists.
Special forces later arrested 18 of the escapees, while some returned on their own, said Mohammed Hejazi, a government security official in Benghazi. There was confusion, however, about how many prisoners broke out, with numbers of escapees ranging as high as 1,200.
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. 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 leader Moammar Gaddafi.
In 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, Mohamed Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood.
“We don’t want the Brotherhood, we want the army and the police,” Libyan protesters chanted, repeating a slogan also used in Egypt. Libya’s nascent security forces are struggling to control the country’s militias, most of whom have roots in the rebel groups that overthrew Gaddafi in 2011.
The activist Musmari, who used to publicly criticize the Brotherhood, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Benghazi.
Some protesters stormed the headquarters of a Brotherhood-affiliated political party and another Islamist-allied party in the capital, destroying furniture. Witnesses say demonstrators also stormed a Brotherhood party in Benghazi.
Protesters angry with the weak central government also targeted the liberal National Forces Alliance, ransacking its headquarters. The party came on top in Libya’s first free parliamentary elections last year.