Tripoli, Asharq Al-Awsat—Heavy fighting between rebel fighters and rogue government forces was reported in Benghazi on Friday, as Tripoli denied any involvement in the fighting and called on residents to “resist.”
The so-called “Libyan National Army,” led by former army chief Gen. Khalifa Haftar—who earlier this year announced an unsuccessful coup against the Tripoli government—converged on the eastern city of Benghazi to retake bases held by Islamist militias. Local media reported that a total of 6,000 troops loyal to Haftar had been deployed to fight Ansar Al-Sharia and other Islamist militant groups in Benghazi.
“We are still shelling militia camps, as a way to restore the legitimacy of the state of Libya. The militias had controlled the eastern entrances of Benghazi,” Reuters quoted a Libyan National Army spokesman as saying.
At least four people have been reported killed and thirty injured in Friday’s clashes, with local and international media confirming that Haftar’s “irregular” forces include an air force.
Libyan army chief Abdul Salam El-Obeid told state TV that no orders had been given for the military to attack militia bases in Benghazi. Turkey’s Anadolu News Agency quoted the general as calling on Benghazi residents to “resist” Haftar’s forces.
“Haftar’s forces are illegitimate. They have nothing to do with the military; they want to take over Benghazi,” he said.
Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni told reporters: “We have given orders . . . to intercept any force trying to enter Benghazi because they don’t have legitimacy from the state.”
“We’re telling them we have the legitimacy from the civilians who suffer on a daily basis from the killings targeting the police and military. We are fighting militias who threaten stability,” Haftar forces spokesman Mohammed Hejazi told Reuters.
Haftar had appeared on television in February, dressed in military fatigues, to announce the dissolution of parliament and a new, military-backed “roadmap.” The Libyan government, in addition to the military command, dismissed the announcement as a coup, with then-prime minister Ali Zeidan appearing on state television to say: We won’t let anyone hijack the Libyan revolution . . . The military command has given orders to arrest Haftar with the help of the revolutionary troops following [the release of] his communiqué.”
Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that it had temporarily moved nearly 200 Marines from a US base in Spain to Sicily as a precaution, bolstering Washington’s ability to respond to a crisis in North Africa.
“We’re doing this as a contingency because we believe that the security situation in North Africa is deteriorating to a point where there could be threats,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said, without explicitly referring to Libya.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, a high-level Libyan official who asked not to be named said that Tripoli had no knowledge of any US intention to militarily intervene in the crisis.
“Our position is clear, which is to reject any foreign military intervention on Libyan soil. However at the same time, we understand the concern being exhibited by some countries regarding their interests and diplomatic presence on the ground,” the official said.