BENGHAZI - Eastern Libya descended further into anarchy Sunday as a rogue general accused by Tripoli of staging a coup readied a new offensive against militant groups, vowing to eradicate “terrorism”.
Officials said Saturday that fierce fighting in the North African nation’s second city Benghazi, a hotbed of the militancy, had killed at least 79 people and wounded 141.
Heavy gunfire and clashes broke out Sunday in the south of the Libyan capital, near the country’s interim parliament whose members were evacuated, witnesses and an MP said. They said the clashes erupted after a convoy of armoured vehicles entered Tripoli from the airport road and headed for the General National Congress (GNC) building. GNC members were evacuated from the building after gunmen in civilian clothes attacked the building, according to a member of the interim parliament, who could not identify the assailants.
The fighting erupted on Friday, as retired general Khalifa Haftar unleashed his so-called National Army on militiamen in the city, backed by warplanes and helicopters. “Each battle is followed by a regrouping of units. And we will return in force,” Haftar said on Saturday after his men withdrew late Friday. “We will not give up until we achieve our goals,” he said, claiming to have responded “to the call of the people to eradicate Benghazi of terrorism”.
The government accused the “outlaw” Haftar of trying to mount a coup and declared a Benghazi no-fly zone, vowing to shoot down aircraft that defy the ban.
Haftar, who led ground forces in the 2011 uprising that toppled Moamer Gaddafi, said: “Our operation is not a coup and we do not plan to seize power.” “This operation has a precise goal which is the eradication of terrorism” in Libya, he told reporters. Haftar defected from Gaddafi’s forces in the late 1980s and spent nearly 20 years in the United States before joining the uprising.
Detractors accuse him of being in the pay of the Americans. Haftar has the support of rogue officers and army units, and seemed to act on his own accord on Friday. Health ministry official Abdallah al-Fitouri said Saturday the violence had claimed 79 lives.
Nuri Abu Sahmein, head of the country’s highest political body the General National Congress, denounced Haftar’s military operation.
It is “an action outside state legitimacy and a coup d’etat”, said a joint statement read on state television by the GNC chief, flanked by recently appointed Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani and armed forces chief of staff Abdessalam Jadallah al-Salihin. “All those who took part in this coup bid will be prosecuted.”
Haftar responded by saying he does not recognise the interim authorities whose “mandate has already expired and who are rejected by the people”.
The interim parliament sparked outrage earlier this year when it extended its own mandate from February until December. Subsequent protests compelled it to promise early elections and a new electoral law.
Haftar’s unilateral move in attacking the “terrorists” is a challenge to the authorities that have struggled to stomp out lawlessness in a country awash with weapons from the uprising and effectively ruled by a patchwork of former rebels.
Ex-rebels, particularly Islamists, have been blamed for attacks that have killed dozens of members of security forces, judges and foreigners in Benghazi, cradle of the 2011 revolt.
In February, Haftar caused a stir when he announced an “initiative” aimed at suspending the interim government and parliament. That sparked concern on social media of a pending coup, but the government insisted it was in control.
The army says Haftar is backed by tribes, army defectors and former rebels who oppose the central government.
The high command on Saturday declared Benghazi and its suburbs a “no-fly zone until further notice”, but it is unclear if the fledgling army can enforce this.
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.
Haftar’s forces on Friday mainly targeted Ansar al-Sharia, an organisation designated by the United States as a terrorist group.
Overnight Saturday-Sunday, unidentified attackers threw a bomb at a central Benghazi building housing the group’s radio station, without causing damage or casualties. Haftar’s offensive comes at a time of high political tension, particularly after this month’s disputed election of the Islamist-backed Thani.