Libya sets Feb. 20 vote for constitution panel

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RIPOLI, Libya (AP) – Libya’s interim parliament on Thursday set Feb. 20 as the date for a national election to choose a panel to draft the country’s long overdue constitution, while clashes erupted in an eastern city between soldiers and a powerful militia after the abduction of a military commander’s son.

General National Congress head Nouri Abu Sahmein’s announcement of the date for elections gives new hopes for ending a political deadlock that had stymied the rocky transition to democracy following the overthrow of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

But the elections for the 60-member panel might still be disrupted by some groups’ calls for disbanding parliament, while apathy and a boycott by members of the Berber ethnic minority could lead to low turnout.

The constitution was supposed to have been completed last year, but lawmakers extended the deadline to August – at the same time extending the interim legislature’s own mandate, scheduled to expire in February, for another year.

A split in parliament between a bloc dominated by Islamists and another by non-Islamists prevented the passage of a law governing the vote until last July. Many blamed the delays for impeding the transition, and it may also undermine the already shaky authority of Libya’s government as it struggles to rein in a myriad of armed groups.

The constituent panel divides seats equally among the country’s three regions.

However, lawmakers from the Berber ethnic group, estimated at nearly 20 percent of Libya’s nearly 6 million population, have called for an elections boycott.

The group has a history of suppression under Gadhafi. Some Berbers say they deserve bigger representation, or guarantees before the writing of the constitution that their language will be recognized.

The political jockeying has come against a backdrop of lawlessness, abductions and assassinations, blamed largely on militias that emerged from the anti-Gadhafi rebel movement.

Most recently, troops clashed with a politically influential militia in the country’s second largest city, Benghazi, after unidentified gunmen abducted the unit commander’s son, said Melad al-Zewi, spokesman for Libya’s commandos.

He said that troops demanded to search the compound of the February 17 Brigade looking for the son of Col. Wanis Abu Khamada, kidnapped from the university in Benghazi earlier on the day. When they were prevented from doing so, fighting erupted.

Helicopters hovered over the site of the clashes, witnesses said.

Abu Khamada’s force is popular with many Benghazi residents as one of the few government units willing to take on the militias. It has fought several armed groups including the Islamist Ansar Shariah group linked to the Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in the city that left four Americans dead including the U.S. ambassador.

February 17 is led by Fawzi Abu-Katef, a former rebel leader backed by the Muslim Brotherhood group.

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