Cairo – Life has started to return to normal in Libya’s second city Benghazi only hours after commander of the National Libyan Army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar announced its “complete liberation” from armed extremists after over three years of fierce battles.
Thousands of Libyans took to the streets throughout the country to celebrate the victory, while National Libyan Army members swept Benghazi for mines that the extremists had planted behind before their defeat. The citizens have been urged to stay away from the al-Sabri and Souk al-Hout areas until the forces announce that they are safe.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister of the UN-backed national agreement government Fayez al-Sarraj congratulated in a statement the residents of Benghazi on the liberation of their city. He did not however explicitly mention Haftar or his forces in the statement.
He “hoped that the upcoming period would mark the beginning of the unified democratic civil state with a single army and sovereign and united institutions and that stability and security would be restored throughout Libya.”
Priority now lies in “reconstruction and activating the role of state institutions to better serve Benghazi and the Libyan cities that have been plagued by extremism.”
The presidential council is exerting all of its efforts to ensure that operation is restored at vital institutions as soon as possible, he added.
In the first international reaction to the liberation, France praised what it described as the “progress” achieved by the National Libyan Army.
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry said: “Paris hails all counter-terrorism efforts, such as what was achieved by the forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar against the terrorist groups in Benghazi.”
“For these successes to be sustainable, an organized Libyan army under the power of the civil authority should be formed in order to monitor all Libyan territories and borders,” she added.
Haftar had in spring 2014 launched an operation to liberate Benghazi from extremists. In contrast to the international community, he does not recognize Sarraj’s government. His opponents, especially a group in Misrata, accuses the field marshal of seeking to establish military rule in the North African country.
France, which backs Sarraj, had sent military experts to Haftar, who is considered the main deterrent against terrorism. Paris has repeatedly declared that Haftar is “part of the solution” in Libya and it seeks to launch an initiative with regional partners, especially the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, to reach this solution.
British Ambassador to Libya Peter Millett hoped that Benghazi’s liberation will restore security and prosperity to the city, adding through his Twitter account that there is no place for terrorism in Libya.
The UN mission in the country also hailed the liberation, hoping that it would mark a step towards stability, peace and reconciliation in Libya.
The victory in the eastern city of Benghazi is considered a major feat for Haftar, who is advancing steadily in eastern and southern Libya in what is seen as a challenge to Sarraj’s government in the capital Tripoli, which is facing problems in expanding its authority.