CAIRO (AP) — Fierce clashes in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi between Islamist militiamen and rival forces loyal to a renegade general have killed 31 fighters on both sides, a security official said Tuesday.
The fighting erupted late on Monday, with forces and fighter jets belonging to Gen. Khalifa Hifter pounding positions of Islamist militias called The Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council, said the official.
The hours-long clashes concentrated around the city’s Benina airport and the militiamen responded with artillery, added the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Hifter’s side lost 20 fighters while the militiamen had 11 killed, and 36 fighters in all were wounded, the official said. Several of the wounded were reported to be in critical condition.
Libya is witnessing its worst spasm of violence since former dictator Moammar Gadhafi was toppled and killed in 2011.
The country’s divisions are deeply rooted in rivalries between Islamists and non-Islamists, as well as powerful tribal and regional allegiances between groups who quickly filled the power vacuum after Gadhafi’s ouster. Successive transitional governments have failed to control the militias.
Fighting in recent months has mostly engulfed the capital, Tripoli, and also Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city.
The militias in control of the capital, operating under an umbrella group called the Dawn of Libya, have also taken control of the U.S. embassy compound, a week after they drove out rival militias. A State Department official said the compound “remains secure.”
On Tuesday, Libya’s official news agency said calm had returned to Tripoli, with some banks resuming work and shops and bakeries reopening. Traffic also picked up in the capital and there were long lines outside gas stations. Some families who fled the fighting areas have returned to their homes, the agency said.
On Monday, Libya’s newly elected parliament asked the country’s prime minister who resigned last week, Abdullah al-Thinni, to form a new government. Al-Thinni had said after his resignation that his government had lost control of almost all state institutions and government offices to armed Islamist militias.
The fighting forced the newly elected parliament and al-Thinni to operate in the eastern city of Tobruk.
On Tuesday, Mohammed Shouaib, the deputy head of parliament, stressed that the body did not ask for “military intervention” but for the United Nations to help Libya build its institutions, including the police and military. He was referring to an earlier decision by the parliament to call for international help in restoring order in Libya.
The issue of military intervention is one of the most debated in the country. Earlier this month, unknown parties carried out airstrikes in Tripoli, bombing Islamist-allied militias’ positions. American officials confirmed reports that Egypt and the United Arab Emirates were behind the two airstrikes.
Shouaib was speaking in a presser with British envoy Jonathan Powell and British Ambassador Michael Aron, who were visiting Tobruk to express support to the elected parliament.
Meanwhile in Tripoli, a parallel government is in the making. Supported by Islamist allies, the so-called National Salvation government led by Omar al-Hassi and his 14-ministers won a vote of confidence. Al-Hassi was appointed by the outgoing parliament — whose mandate expired after a new parliament was elected — and assigned him to form a new government to challenge the legitimate ones in Tobruk.
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