Ex-Libyan general in bid to retake Benghazi

2014-10-15 15:35

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Benghazi - Forces loyal to a prominent former general in Libya launched a new bid Wednesday to recapture the second city Benghazi from Islamist fighters vying for power in the violence-plagued state.

The North African nation has been gripped by turmoil since the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi, with the authorities struggling to control powerful militias that ousted and killed him.

Gunfire and explosions were heard in Benghazi Wednesday, according to an AFP correspondent, after ex-general Khalifa Haftar announced that he was ready to "liberate" the flashpoint eastern city from Islamists.

Witnesses said that tanks had launched an assault against an Islamist militia known as the "February 17 Martyrs Brigade", while planes carried out air raids against the group, whose headquarters is located west of the city.

Oil-rich Libya has two competing governments and a host of rival armed militias jostling for influence in the largely lawless country.

One parliament, elected in June, is recognised by the international community but contested by the militia controlling most of Tripoli and by the Islamists who dominate Benghazi.

Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani and the majority faction in the elected legislature have decamped to the far eastern city of Tobruk because of widespread insecurity, including in the capital, where a rival administration has been set up.

Haftar, 71, who took part in the uprising against Gaddafi, launched a military offensive dubbed "Operation Dignity" against Islamists in Benghazi in May, but with little success.

'Difficult days ahead'

In a speech broadcast late Tuesday, Haftar warned: "The coming hours and days will be difficult".

He said: "I bring you today [a message] from the men of Operation Dignity saying that they are ready to fulfil their next goal, which is to liberate the city of Benghazi."

The former general has been vague about his ultimate goal and critics have accused him of seeking to mount a coup.

Benghazi, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising, has been the scene of intense fighting between the Islamists and pro-Haftar soldiers.

The Islamists include the Ansar al-Sharia jihadist militia, which the United States has branded a terrorist organisation.

The militia fighters drove Haftar's forces from their main bases in Benghazi at the end of July, killing dozens of his fighters, and have targeted the city's airport for the past month.

A spokesperson for Haftar had earlier called on young people in Benghazi to secure their neighbourhoods and to keep out Islamist fighters, saying the former general's forces would enter the city on Wednesday.

Haftar's troops are locked in deadly clashes with the Islamists almost every day.

At least 22 people, including soldiers, have been killed in violence in Benghazi over the past 48 hours, according to military and hospital sources.

On Tuesday, seven soldiers were killed in a car bomb near the airport, according to a spokesperson for forces loyal to the former general.

The UN chief Ban Ki-moon made a surprise visit to Libya on Saturday to urge warring factions to end the turmoil shaking the country.

Clashes between rival militias in Libya have driven an estimated 287 000 people from their homes, including about 100 000 who have fled the outskirts of the capital, the UN refugee agency said on Friday.

Read more on:    un  |  ban ki-moon  |  libya  |  north africa

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