BENGHAZI, Libya: A retired Libyan general said Saturday he would press his campaign to free Benghazi of “terrorist groups” a day after clashes in the restive eastern city killed 24 people.
“The operation will continue until Benghazi is purged of terrorists,” Khalifa Haftar told the broadcaster Libya Awalan of the country’s second city, where the uprising against doomed dictator Muammar Gadhafi erupted in February 2011.
A precarious calm reigned in Benghazi after a deadly day that saw Haftar’s forces target Islamist militiamen, using both ground and air power.
Local sources said mediation efforts were under way to try to ensure combat did not break out again.
Early Friday, Haftar unleashed his forces on former rebel Islamist groups, vowing to rid Benghazi of a “terrorist” scourge.
The violence in which medical sources reported 24 people killed and 150 wounded came weeks after the government in Tripoli acknowledged for the first time the existence of “terrorist groups” in Libya and said it was mobilizing against them.
Haftar heads a group calling itself the “National Army” which launched “a large-scale operation to flush terrorists out of Benghazi”, spokesman Mohammed al-Hijazi said on Friday.
“This is not a civil war. It’s an operation against terrorist groups,” added Hijazi, who like Haftar was an officer in Kadhafi’s army before defecting.
Haftar’s forces pounded former rebel groups in the city, focusing in particular on Ansar Sharia, an organisation designated by the United States as a terrorist group, according to the army.
The regular army denied any involvement in Friday’s clashes, and the government condemned the operation.
Armed forces chief of staff Abdessalam Jadallah al-Salihin denied any army involvement in the Benghazi clashes.
– Denounced as ‘outlaws’ –
“The (regular) army has nothing to do with the clashes. The army did not give any orders for any sort of operation” in Benghazi, he said in Tripoli.
But Salihin also admitted that some officers and units from the regular army had joined Haftar’s group.
Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani denounced Haftar’s forces as “outlaws” and told a news conference in Tripoli that the army was “in control on the ground”. He also urged restraint.
The fighting subsided on Friday afternoon, an AFP journalist said, as witnesses reported that Haftar’s forces were pulling back.
Air traffic was suspended in Benghazi during the day and an official said the city’s airport would be closed for 24 hours for security reasons.
Libyans appear divided about the fighting in Benghazi.
Some believe that Haftar’s operation is the prelude to a military coup and his objective is to seize power.
Others see him as a strongman who could rid Libya of extremism, a task the central authorities have been unable to achieve despite pledging to do so.
Little has been done since Tripoli made its vow in March to tackle the issue forcefully.
Faced with a wave of assassinations and attacks on security forces in the east, tribes and the military have allied themselves with Haftar’s forces, who are also supported by separatist rebels who for months blockaded petroleum sites.
Haftar himself comes from eastern Libya. He defected from Gadhafi’s forces in the late 1980s and spent nearly two decades in the United States.
He returned to the North African country after the Arab Spring swept eastwards from Tunisia to join the uprising.
Because of his background, he is regularly accused of being in the pay of the Americans.