Special forces troops had to abandon their main camp in southeast Benghazi after coming under sustained attack from a coalition of Islamist fighters and militias, military officials and residents said.
“We have withdrawn from the army base after heavy shelling,” a Special Forces official, Fadel Al-Hassi, told Reuters.
A Special Forces spokesman also confirmed that Islamist fighters had taken over the base.
Intense fighting in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, and battles between rival militias in the capital Tripoli, have pushed Libya deeper into chaos after two weeks of the fiercest violence since the 2011 civil war ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
Foreign states followed the US and UN in pulling diplomats out of the North African oil-producing state, after clashes between two rival brigades of former anti-Gaddafi fighters closed Tripoli’s international airport.
A rocket hit a fuel depot near Tripoli airport two days ago, igniting a huge blaze that Libyan firefighters on Tuesday were fighting to put out. Italy’s government and Italian oil group ENI had agreed to help them, the government said.
Three years after Gaddafi’s fall, the OPEC nation has failed to control ex-rebel militias who refuse to disband and who are threatening the unity of the country. The extent of recent hostilities has increased Western worries that Libya is sliding towards becoming a failed state and may once again go to war.
In Benghazi, battles have intensified since special forces and regular air force units joined ranks with a renegade army general, Khalifa Haftar, who launched a campaign against Islamist militants entrenched in the city, the home of the revolution against Gaddafi’s more than 40-year rule.
“Groups of terrorists calling themselves Al-Shura Council Forces are attacking the government’s main military base,” Col. Wanis Bukhamada, a special forces spokesman in Benghazi, told Reuters. “We have received 30 corpses so far,” a medical source told Reuters at Benghazi’s main hospital.
Islamist fighters from one of those groups, Ansar Al-Shari’a, classified as a foreign terrorist organization by Washington, have been blamed by authorities for carrying out the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012 in which the US ambassador was killed.
A government MiG warplane crashed during Tuesday’s fighting in Benghazi. A Reuters reporter saw the pilot parachuting to ground after hearing an explosion. A spokesman for Haftar’s forces said it was due to a technical problem.
Eastern Libya, where some of the country’s major oil ports are concentrated, was where opposition to Gaddafi was strongest.
While tribal lifestyles declined in Libya as the country’s growing oil wealth meant people moved into towns, traditional power structures within this nation of about six million people remained strong beneath the surface.
Gaddafi’s strategy effectively amounted to a system of divide and rule, buying off established tribal leaders.
In Egypt, the army proved to be the supreme political force but in the post-Gaddafi era powerful militias have taken over fighting for power, influence and oil wealth.
Tripoli was quieter on Tuesday than over the last fortnight during which the two brigades of former rebels, mainly from the towns of Zintan and Misrata, have pounded each other’s positions with Grad rockets, artillery fire and cannons, turning the south of the capital into a battlefield.
At least 160 people have died in Tripoli and Benghazi during the clashes in the two cities, according to the Health Ministry.
A spokesman for the state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC) said on Tuesday the armed factions in Tripoli had agreed to a brief ceasefire to allow emergency services to fight the blazing fuel storage tanks containing millions of liters of fuel.
The tanks are operated by Brega oil company, which is owned by NOC, and store oil for local consumption in Libya.
Black smoke was billowing from one of the tanks hit by a rocket on Sunday near the airport road. The highway and surrounding areas were empty after homes in the area were evacuated, except for occasional militia roadblocks.
Firefighters were spraying the area with water to cool down storage depots near the fuel tank that was set ablaze to try to extinguish the inferno.
Libya formally requested aid from France to fight the blaze, the French Foreign Ministry said. France, which has told its citizens to leave the country, has yet to ask its embassy staff to leave.
The United States, whose embassy is near to the contested airport, evacuated its embassy staff in Tripoli on Saturday, driving diplomats across the border into Tunisia under heavy military guard, including air support from warplanes.
Britain, other European governments, Turkey, and the Philippines have also pulled out diplomatic staff or left just a few representatives behind in Tripoli, where the violence is also causing fuel and power shortages.
France and Spain on Tuesday were evacuating more nationals and some diplomats from Tripoli, according to the LANA state news agency.
Canada is temporarily pulling its diplomats due to fears about their safety, Foreign Minister John Baird said on Tuesday.
Despite the chaos, Libya’s oil production last week was around 500,000 barrels per day (bpd). That was up from earlier this year when unrest pushed output down to as low as around 200,000 bpd, but still below the usual 1.4 million bpd.