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Libya: Benghazi clashes leave 70 dead as hundreds flee - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A man looks at destroyed warehouses following Friday's clashes between Libyan irregular forces and Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi, May 17, 2014. (REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori)

A man looks at destroyed warehouses following Friday’s clashes between Libyan irregular forces and Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi, May 17, 2014. (REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori)

Cairo and Benghazi, Asharq Al-Awsat—Hundreds of residents of Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi fled their homes on Saturday, fearing new clashes could erupt between forces loyal to former army commander Gen. Khalifa Haftar and extremist armed militias in the city, following two days of fighting.

This followed a short televised statement from Col. Mohammed Hejazi, a spokesman for Haftar’s forces, urging residents in the districts of Al-Qawarshah, Sidi Faraj and Al-Hawari to leave their homes for their own safety.

Fighting broke out on Friday, after troops and aircraft—apparently acting under orders from Haftar—attacked bases of Islamist militia groups in the city. Although the city appeared quiet on Sunday, the Libyan Ministry of Health said 70 people had been killed over the previous two days and 141 wounded.

Egyptian and Tunisian flights to Benghazi have been suspended. An official said that Benina International Airport, 12 miles (19 kilometers) east of the city, would be closed for 24 hours for security reasons. Ibrahim Farkash, the director of the airport said that this was to ensure the safety and security of passengers.

The Libyan government has ordered Haftar and his forces to stand down, saying the general’s actions are tantamount to a “coup” and aimed at securing power for himself, rather than improving security in the country. Haftar denies the allegations, saying he was attempting to restore security to the city and had the backing of most of its residents.

Haftar previously called for a military coup against Libya’s interim government earlier this year, but received little support.

The head of the Libyan army’s General Staff issued a ban on flights over the city on Saturday, saying any military aircraft would be fired on by Libyan army units and allied militia.

The declaration came two days after a number of military pilots launched air strikes against positions of armed Islamist militias in and around the city at the urging of Haftar but without official authorization, and in violation of instructions, military sources told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Mohammed Boqoffa, a spokesman for the Islamist February 17 Brigade, said the militia’s base had been attacked by unidentified military aircraft, but that no one had been wounded.

He also claimed that members of the militia had managed to shoot down a helicopter in Al-Talhiya area, 18 miles (30 km) west of Benghazi.

The situation in the city remains unclear, exacerbated by the fragmented nature of political and military authority in post-Gaddafi Libya. Since the downfall of the Libyan dictator in 2011, the country’s transitional authorities have struggled to impose order and rebuild the Libyan security forces, leaving it dependent on a collection of ramshackle, feuding militias for security purposes while new military and police forces are trained.

Sources close to Haftar told Asharq Al-Awsat on Saturday that there were serious divisions among the nascent Libyan military, with some following Haftar and some answering to Tripoli, saying: “There are big splits in the ranks of the government and regular forces.”

A number of army commanders have already joined Haftar’s troops, the sources said, adding that the majority of the national army commanders in Benghazi were no longer loyal to the central authorities in the capital.

Meanwhile, Haftar declared that what he is calling his “Operation Dignity for purging Benghazi of terrorist and Takfiri groups” was going ahead.

“The operation will continue until Benghazi has been cleansed of terrorists,” Haftar told a local TV station.

Libyans appear to be divided over the infighting in Benghazi. While some believe that Haftar’s operation is a prelude to a military coup and that his aim is to monopolize power, others view him as a figure capable of ridding Libya of extremist militias who have been blamed for a number of deadly attacks—a mission that the central authorities have not managed to accomplish.

Reports say a number of tribes and military officers have formed an alliance with Haftar following a wave of assassinations and attacks against the army in eastern Libya. The alliance is also supported by separatists seeking more autonomy for eastern Libya, and who have blockaded oil facilities for months in order to put pressure on Tripoli.

Haftar, who hails from the region, defected from the Gaddafi-era Libyan military in the late 1980s. He spent around two decades in the US, leading to accusations that he is being bankrolled by Washington.

Dozens of residents in Tripoli staged a demonstration at Al-Jaza’ir Square on Friday, demanding that the government speed up the process of building a national army and police forces.

The demonstrators voiced their support for Haftar’s campaign in Benghazi. A local news agency quoted one of the rally organizers as saying that the Libyan people rejected organizations that possess weapons, raise black [radical Islamist] flags and obstruct the establishment of a civilian state.

He added that this rally was to show support for the attacks on the bases and camps of these brigades.

In a related development, the Libyan Dar Al-Ifta, an institution in charge of issuing fatwas, described events in Benghazi as “[a conspiracy] against the country, and an attempt to steal its revolution.”

In a separate statement, Sheikh Sadiq Al-Gharyani, Libya’s Mufti, advised the nation’s revolutionary militia to set up security checkpoints across Libya, but warned them against discriminating against people on the basis of their religion or ethnicity.