BENGHAZI, Libya: Clashes between Islamists and Libyan troops loyal to a rogue general pressing an offensive against jihadists killed 10 people Monday in the restive eastern city of Benghazi, medics said.
The Islamists, including Ansar al-Sharia militants, attacked a base of elite special forces who support renegade general Khalifa Haftar, triggering the fighting, said the commander of a Benghazi air base who has also sided with him.
Officials at two hospitals in the area said at least eight soldiers and two civilians were killed, and 15 people wounded.
Fearing the violence might spread, hospitals called on citizens to donate blood, while the education ministry closed schools, forcing the postponement of scheduled final exams.
Colonel Saad al-Werfelli said Ansar al-Sharia militants backed by fighters from two other Islamist groups “bombarded base 21 early on Monday, killing and wounding soldiers who were trapped inside.”
The Libyan air force retaliated by launching strikes on the assailants, added the officer.
The air base and the elite special forces unit in Benghazi have thrown their support behind Haftar who last month launched an offensive against Islamists accused of repeated violence in the city.
The latest bloodshed comes a day after Haftar’s forces launched fresh air raids on Islamists in Benghazi, including a meeting of Ansar al-Sharia, said General Saqr al-Jerushi who heads air operations.
– ‘Enemy of Islam’ –
The strikes came after Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb urged Libyans to fight Haftar and his so-called National Army, labeling the ex-army general an “enemy of Islam”.
Authorities have denounced Haftar as an outlaw, but he has won over units from the regular army and air force and says he aims to crush “terrorism” in Benghazi.
Since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that ousted veteran dictator Muammar Qadhafi, near-daily attacks blamed on radical Islamists have targeted security forces in Benghazi.
The latest violence is the deadliest since May 16, when Haftar launched “Operation Dignity” to crush the Islamists in eastern Libya and fighting then killed at least 76 people.
Ansar al-Sharia, classified as a terrorist group by the United States, was backed by the February 17 Brigades of ex-rebel leader Rafallah al-Sahati and the Libya Shield Force Islamist groups, said Werfelli.
But the powerful February 17 group of ex-rebels is suspected of strong ties with Ansar al-Sharia but it denied any involvement in Monday’s fighting, in a statement posted on Facebook.
The group of ex-rebels is suspected of having strong ties with Ansar al-Sharia, which has threatened Haftar that he could end up like Qadhafi, killed by rebels eight months after the 2011 uprising.
Last week Ansar al-Sharia threatened Haftar that he could end up like Kadhafi, who was killed by rebels eight months after the start of the revolt, and urged Libyans not to join his campaign.
Haftar, 71, who lived in exile in the United States before returning home to command ground forces in the uprising, says he has a popular mandate to act, after thousands held protests to support him in both Benghazi and Tripoli.
Last week he said in a statement read on a private television that he would not rest until he has purged Libya of Islamists.
“No steps backwards until the country is liberated, security and stability restored and freedom and democracy established,” he said.