Rogue general denies Islamist seizure of Benghazi
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A rogue Libyan general denied Islamist claims that their militias had seized control of Libya’s second-largest city of Benghazi on Thursday as diplomatic missions continued to evacuate staff from the capital Tripoli amid the continuing unrest.
General Khalifa Hifter, a renegade general who for months has led army units and other fighters in a campaign against the armed Islamists, called the militant claims a "lie".
“The national Libyan army is in control of Benghazi and only withdrew from certain positions for tactical reasons,” Haftar told Al Arabiya News Channel.
“The claim that Benghazi is under the control of militias is a lie,” he said.
Islamist commenders, however, said the coalition’s fighters had driven all army forces and fighters loyal to Hifter out the city.
“We are the only force on the ground in Benghazi,” a commander of one of the Islamist coalition’s factions told The Associated Press (AP) on Thursday.
The Islamists appeared to be making gains in the city, days after they seized the Special Forces base. A police station and a military base were seized Thursday by the militants, who were also in control of the western entrances to Benghazi, residents and local officials said.
A powerful explosion ripped through the main police headquarters in Benghazi on Friday, nearly flattening it, witnesses said. The blast shook nearby houses and echoed across the eastern city.
Thousands of residents of Tripoli and Benghazi rallied in the evening for protests against the militants, waving Libyan tricolor flags and chanting slogans against the militias.
The militants belong to a newly formed umbrella group called the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, made up of multiple armed factions led by Islamist extremist commanders.
Among the factions is Ansar al-Shariah, the group accused by the United States of leading a September 11, 2012, attack on a diplomatic facility in the city that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.
Evacuations under way
Two weeks of shelling in the capital have knocked Tripoli International Airport out of commission and killed almost 200 people. The deadly clashes between rival militias have prompted a wave of evacuations by foreign nationals, diplomats and Libyan civilians.
Tunisia closed its main border crossing with Libya on Friday after thousands of stranded Egyptian and foreign nationals fleeing the fighting tried to break through the passage, Tunisian news agencies said.
The Philippines is in the process of evacuating 13,000 citizens from Tripoli after a Filipino worker was beheaded and a nurse kidnapped and gang-raped. France evacuated more than 50 French and British citizens by ship and temporarily closed its embassy on Wednesday. Greece is sending a warship to evacuate its nationals while Spain is pulling out most of its embassy staff.
The Special Forces, one of the few elite government forces, had been clashing for months with the Islamic militias, which are accused of fomenting a wave of unrest, bombings, kidnappings and assassinations.
Then prime minister Ali Zeidan was briefly abducted by a militia last October.
The man who replaced Zeidan, interim premier Abdullah al-Thinni, resigned after just one month on the job after he and his family were attacked outside their home. No one was injured in the attack.
'Rule of God'
In a video put out by Thursday by Ansar al-Shariah, commander Mohammed al-Zahawi congratulates his followers on the “victory and conquest” in Benghazi. He was shown standing in front of a tank inside the base of the Special Forces.
Another militia commander, Wissam bin Hamid, was also shown in the video, proclaiming in front of his masked fighters: “We will not stop until we establish the rule of God.”
After the fall of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in the 2011 civil war, militias emerged as the strongest power in the city, setting up barracks and bases packed with weaponry and taking over security duties. They started out on the government payroll, since central authorities depended on them to maintain order.
But after the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission, Benghazi protesters chased out Ansar al-Shariah and other militias in a wave of demonstrations.
Earlier this year, Hifter announced his own campaign to crush extremists, calling it the “Dignity Operation”. Multiple army units and some militias declared they were joining him in the campaign, and his forces attacked Islamic militia positions around Benghazi.
In a June retaliatory move, extremist-led militias formed the Shura Council, vowing to “cleanse the city” of Hifter and his allies to establish Islamic rule. The group was formed after US special forces snatched a top hard-line commander, Ahmed Abu-Khatala, accused of involvement in the attack on the US consulate.
Since then the group has been making advances in fighting with army units and Hifter’s forces, first capturing the city’s seaport and one of the main hospitals.
On July 14, the coalition said it had taken over a Benghazi army barracks that is one of the biggest in eastern Libya, known as Barracks 319. Over the past week, more than five other barracks fell under their control, including the Special Forces camp.
“We will not stop until we uproot the latest person of the ‘No-Dignity’ and topple down their walls,” the coalition said in a statement Monday, a derisive reference to Hifter’s campaign.
(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)
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