TRIPOLI, LIBYA — A car bomb tore through a Libyan Foreign Ministry building in the eastern city of Benghazi on Wednesday, a powerful reminder of lawlessness in the North African nation on the anniversary of a deadly attack on the U.S. consulate there as well as the 2001 terror attacks in the United States.
Prime Minister Ali Zidan issued a stern warning to militias blamed for much of the violence that has plagued Libya since the overthrow of dictator Moammar Gadhafi two years ago, proclaiming that “we will not bow to anyone.”
But the challenges are mounting. The prime minister said that armed men had just stormed a post office in the capital, Tripoli, taking employees hostage. A witness at the scene, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, told The Associated Press that the attackers were seeking to cut off mail to the southern city of Sabha in retaliation for a rival tribe from Sabha cutting off the water supply to Tripoli for a week, forcing hospitals and homes to rely on wells and large tanks.
Other groups have shut down oil fields to protest corruption or demand regional autonomy, causing the country to lose out on millions of dollars a day in potential revenue.
The Benghazi blast caused no deaths or serious injuries, but destroyed the Foreign Ministry branch building in an attack rich in symbolism. The building once housed the U.S. Consulate under the rule of King Idris, who was overthrown in 1969 in a bloodless coup led by Gadhafi.
The bombing took place about 6 a.m., well before anybody was due to arrive at the Foreign Ministry for work and at a time when the nearby streets were nearly empty.
The explosion blew out a side wall of the building, leaving desks, filing cabinets and computers strewn across the concrete rubble.
It also damaged the Benghazi branch of the Libyan Central Bank.
Pictures circulated on Facebook showed men carrying dead doves, with one person commenting that “the dog who did this will be punished for the guilt of killing doves.” Another photo shows black smoke smoldering out of the charred Foreign Ministry building, along with wrecked cars and burned palm trees. A green tarp was later placed over part of the building.
The blast also rocked Benghazi’s main boulevard, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, which runs through the city from north to south. Several pedestrians were slightly wounded.
Mohammed el-Ubaidi, head of the Foreign Ministry branch in Benghazi, told Libyan television that the car carried 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of explosives and was blown up by remote control.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, which came a day after bomb disposal experts defused an explosive device found next to the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Tripoli.
“There is a force that doesn’t want a state in place and wants to turn Libya into a battlefield of terrorism and explosions,” said Zidan, the prime minister. “The security situation is tough.”
Gadhafi was deposed and killed after an eight-month uprising that descended into a civil war in 2011. Since then, successive Libyan interim governments have failed to impose law and order. The country remains held hostage by unruly militia forces initially formed to fight Gadhafi. The militias, which have huge stockpiles of sophisticated weaponry, now threaten Libya’s nascent democracy.
Car bombings and drive-by shootings routinely kill security officials in Benghazi, the birthplace of the uprising.
Deputy Interior Minister Sadik Abdel-Karim described the security situation as “deteriorating.”
Tawfiq Breik, a lawmaker with the liberal-leaning National Forces Alliance, said that the attacks will continue as long as Libya lacks a strong national army and police.
“Even with so many officials assassinated, no one is held accountable,” Breik said. “No one is arrested. The state is disabled.”
“There is no solution but for the police, military and judiciary to be built up,” former Interior Minister Ashour Shwayl told the AP. “Otherwise, chaos will remain.”
But the government has been mired in political paralysis, fueled by rivalry between a Muslim Brotherhood-led bloc of Islamists and a liberal-leaning bloc following successful parliamentary elections last year.
The two sides have been unable to organize an election of an assembly tasked to write a new constitution, causing the liberal-leaning bloc last month to suspend its participation in the political process until a constitution is in place.
Moreover, Libya has had no interior minister since the last one resigned weeks ago over a conflict with the prime minister.
“There is not a single explanation for the security vacuum except the fact that the central government is weak,” Ibrahim Dabashi, the Libyan ambassador to the United Nations, told the AP.
“There is little margin for what Zidan and his government can do and maneuver except accelerating the writing of the constitution to enable the future government to enjoy full powers and take tough and daring decisions.”
He said the government should disarm militias and integrate them under the umbrella of the Libyan army and police. He also recommended giving youngsters jobs in local governments.
“Gradually, armed groups will find no supply of unemployed youth. If we bring police and military on their feet, judiciary will start to function,” Dabashi said.
The U.S. condemned Wednesday’s car bombing, which State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said “threatens to undermine Libya’s democratic transition as well as the legacy of Libya’s revolution in which the Libyan people made their voices heard through peaceful means.”
The bombing came exactly one year after al-Qaida-linked militants stormed the U.S. mission in Benghazi and a nearby U.S. building, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
“We can’t ignore the date and timing. We can’t forget,” Zidan said.
Last year’s attack sparked widespread criticism of President Barack Obama and his administration for failing to protect the diplomats and for mishandling a subsequent investigation.
The U.S. closed 19 diplomatic posts across the Muslim world for almost a week last month out of caution over a possible al-Qaida strike — likely in response to the Benghazi criticism.
On Aug. 9, Obama told reporters that the U.S. was still committed to capturing those who carried out the deadly consulate assault. Obama said his government has a sealed indictment naming some suspected of involvement. Officials said earlier that the Justice Department had filed under seal the first criminal charges as part of its investigation of the attack.
The Associated Press reported in May that American officials had identified five men who might be responsible for the attack. The suspects were not named publicly, but the FBI released photos of three of the five suspects, asking the public to provide more information about the men.
Since then, Libyan officials have repeatedly said that no one has been arrested in the attack.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.