TRIPOLI: Libyan jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia, blacklisted as a terrorist organization by Washington, vowed Tuesday to defend its stronghold in second city Benghazi against an expanding alliance of opposing forces.
The group charged that a deadly assault in the eastern city on Friday which mainly targeted its forces was “a war against… Islam orchestrated by the United States and its Arab allies.”
Forces loyal to former rebel commander Khalifa Haftar pulled out of Benghazi after the attack which left at least 79 people dead.
But he has vowed to re-enter Benghazi to cleanse it of “terrorists” and on Monday won the support of Special Forces in the city which stayed out of last week’s fighting but have suffered mounting losses to suspected jihadist attacks in recent weeks.
“A confrontation is now inevitable to defend our city and our land,” Ansar al-Sharia said in its statement.
“We will act with force against anyone who enters the city or attacks it, just as was done to the forces sent by Gadhafi,” it added.
The last was a reference to the routing of the forces sent to Benghazi by now slain dictator Muammar Gadhafi in March 2011 in an abortive attempt to crush the uprising that erupted in the city that month.
Ansar al-Sharia acknowledged mounting public support in Benghazi for a strong hand to bring to heel the feuding former rebel militias that have carved out fiefdoms across the city since the NATO-backed uprising.
But it said this should be done “under the banner of sharia (Islamic law), not under the banner of secularism and democracy.”
Ansar al-Sharia has always rejected accusations that its militants were behind a September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.
But in January the U.S. State Department put both the Benghazi group and a sister organization in the eastern city of Derna on its terror blacklist saying both had taken part in the attack.
Haftar, a former Gadhafi -era general who lived in exile in the United States for more than two decades before returning during the uprising, has long drawn accusations of being linked to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, first from the Gadhafi regime, and then from rival rebel commanders.