BENGHAZI: Libyan air force units loyal to a retired general bombed positions held by ex-rebel Islamist groups in Benghazi on Friday as clashes erupted in the cradle of the 2011 revolution.
The violence comes weeks after the government acknowledged for the first time the existence of “terrorist groups” in Libya and said it was mobilising against them. But authorities have been avoiding a full-blown confrontation with the heavily armed former rebels who have bastions in Benghazi and other eastern regions, until they can bolster the army and police. Witnesses said clashes erupted early Friday after a group led by retired general Khalifa Haftar, backed by warplanes, pounded a barracks occupied by the Islamist “February 17 Brigade” militia.
Militiamen responded with anti-aircraft fire. The two groups also clashed in the Sidi Fradj area of south Benghazi, the AFP journalist said, and witnesses said Haftar’s men seized the headquarters of the Rafallah al-Sahati militia. Medical sources gave an initial toll of eight people wounded. Haftar, who was in charge of ground forces during the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed veteran dictator Moamer Kadhafi, heads a group called the “National Army”.
A spokesman said Haftar’s group launched “a large-scale operation to flush terrorists out of Benghazi”, cradle of the NATO-backed rebellion. “This is not a civil war. It is an operation against terrorist groups,” said spokesman Mohammed al-Hijazi, who was a former officer in Kadhafi’s army before turning against him. Army chief of staff Abdessalam Jadallah al-Salihin denied in a statement broadcast on state television that the army was involved in the Benghazi clashes. “The (regular) army has nothing to do with the clashes. The army did not give any orders for any sort of operation” in Benghazi, he said.
Salihin admitted, nevertheless, that some officers and units from the regular army had joined Haftar’s group. Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani held a news conference on Friday at which he called Haftar’s forces “outlaws”. He said the army “is in control on the ground” and urged everyone in Benghazi to observe restraint. But the clashes underscore the government’s struggle to rein in former rebels who helped topple Kadhafi nearly three years ago and who have become increasingly unruly, particularly in Benghazi.
The Mediterranean city has been rocked by almost daily attacks that have killed dozens of members of the security forces, judges and foreigners. There have been no claims of responsibility for these attacks but Islamists have been blamed for the bloodshed. In March, the government issued a statement blaming “terrorists” for dozens of deadly attacks and vowed to eradicate these groups. It made the pledge came after Haftar, in a video posted on the Internet, announced an “initiative” under which the interim government and parliament would be suspended in preparation for elections. That video sparked rumours on social networking that a coup might be in the offing.
The government, which has come in for criticism for failing to end the lawlessness plaguing Libya, was quick to quash the rumours and insist that it was in control. Weeks later it declared a “war against terrorism”. “The nation finds itself in a confrontation with terrorist groups, and it falls upon the government to mobilise its military and security forces to fight this scourge,” said the statement. “There will be no place for terrorism in Libya... and Libyans must be prepared for such a battle in terms of caution, awareness and sacrifice.” Since then, however, no concrete measures have been taken by the authorities and confrontations between the army and jihadists still erupt frequently in Benghazi.
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