Fierce fighting in eastern Libya between army troops loyal to a rogue general and two militias killed 43 people Friday, with the country’s top military official calling the offensive launched without government approval a “coup.”
The clashes forced closure of the city’s main airport late Friday.
Military aircraft and helicopters, apparently under the command of General Khalifa Haftar, flew over the eastern city of Benghazi, Libyan security officials said. On the ground, Haftar’s troops besieged the bases of the Islamist militia Rafallah al-Sahati and a militia known as February 17, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to journalists.
The clashes killed at least 43 people while more than 100 were wounded, officials said.
Since the 2011 civil war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi after 42 years of one-man rule, Libya has been unable to impose authority over brigades of former rebels who refuse to disarm and have carved out regional fiefdoms.
Haftar, a leading figure in the anti-Gaddafi revolt, in February stirred rumours of a coup by appearing in military uniform to call for a presidential committee to be formed to govern until new elections.
It was not clear how much support he commands, but it seems likely his forces are drawn from the country’s nascent army, which is still in training.
“Dignity of Libya”
Mohammed al-Hegazi, a spokesman for Haftar, told Libyan television station Al-Ahrar that Hafter’s forces now controlled the two Islamist militia bases.
Al-Hegazi also said that some military units joined Hafter and that the operation, called the “Dignity of Libya,” includes both air forces and special forces. According to al-Hegazi, forces based at the city’s airport also joined Hafter.
It was not immediately possible to verify his claims. Associated Press footage from Benghazi showed at least one military helicopter flying overhead as gunfire crackled in the city.
The “clashes will not stop until the operation achieves its goals,” al-Hegazi said.
Maj. Gen. Abdel-Salam Gadallah al-Obeidi, Libya’s chief of staff, said forces that launched the Benghazi assault were under Haftar’s control. However, he did not address claims that federal forces fought on Haftar’s side.
Al-Obeidi said he will ban any forces from entering Benghazi to join Haftar, without elaborating. Al-Obeidi later described the unfolding events as a “coup.”
Speaking from Benghazi, Ismail al-Salabi, commander of the Rafallah al-Sahati militia, denied militia bases had been overrun. He also called the attack a coup. Another commander, Fathi al-Obeidi, called Haftar’s attack “a rebellion against revolutionaries, the state and the legitimate revolt.”
Libya’s state LANA news agency quoted Milad al-Zowi, a special forces spokesman, denying that his troops were involved.
Interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni later said only one jet moved out to attack the militias without government permission, along with some 120 weapons-loaded army vehicles.
“This is an attempt to use the current security situation to stand against the revolution. ... The era of coup is gone,” he said in a televised statement.
Benina, Benghazi’s airport, has been closed at night because of the fighting, said Ibrahim Farkash, the airport head. “We had to ensure safety of the passengers,” he told private network al-Nabaa TV.
Haftar’s rise amidst enduring unrest
Militias grew in number and power after the ouster of long-time dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, taking advantage of Libya’s weak and disarrayed military and police. One militia captured and shut down four oil terminals in its demand for a share in oil revenues, costing the country billions of dollars before they reopened. Some other terminals are still closed.
Friday’s assault marks the first time that army units have fought unilaterally and joined forces with Haftar, who once headed the army under Gaddafi but defected in the 1980s. After Gaddafi’s ouster, he was assigned to help rebuild the forces, but he was removed soon after.
In February, Haftar appeared in an online video aired on several Libyan television stations. Wearing a military uniform, he stood in front of a map of Libya and the national flag and claimed to speak for the “general command of the Libyan army.”
In the video, he said the military intended to “rescue” the nation. Libya’s government viewed Haftar’s statement as a coup attempt. Later Libyan media reports claimed Haftar held meetings in air bases in eastern Libya to win the support of the military.
The fighting marks the latest turmoil in Benghazi, where a September 11, 2012, attack killed four Americans, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Meanwhile Friday, Algerian’s Foreign Ministry announced the closure of its embassy in Tripoli, citing “information of a clear and imminent threat” to its diplomatic personnel. The statement did not specify if the ambassador and his staff had been evacuated and described the closure as a temporary measure in light of the “difficult security conditions.” Other diplomats and foreigners have been kidnapped there in the past.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)
Date created : 2014-05-17