AFP – At least 79 people have been killed and 141 others wounded in fierce clashes in eastern Libya between armed groups loyal to a rogue ex-general and Islamist militias, a health ministry official said Saturday.
Libya’s government accused the “outlaw” retired general, Khalifa Haftar, and his irregular forces of trying to carry out a coup as they fight to crush militants in the restive eastern city of Benghazi.
Haftar, who led ground forces in the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, used warplanes and helicopters Friday to support an offensive in pitched battles.
Giving the latest toll of Friday’s unrest in Benghazi, health ministry official Abdallah Al-Fitouri said those wounded had been taken to five hospitals in the area.
An earlier toll had 37 dead and 139 wounded.
Reacting to his vow to continue fighting until Benghazi is “purged of terrorists,” the army announced a no-fly zone over the port city and suburbs, vowing to shoot down any aircraft that defies the ban.
The government, parliament and army charged that Haftar’s operation was tantamount to a coup against the central authorities.
It is “an action outside state legitimacy and a coup d’etat”, said a joint statement read on state television by Nuri Abu Sahmein, the head of the General National Congress.
“All those who took part in this coup bid will be prosecuted,” said Abu Sahmein, flanked by recently appointed Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thani and armed forces chief of staff Abdessalam Jadallah Al-Salihin.
Haftar denied the accusations.
“Our operation is not a coup and we do not plan to seize power,” he told reporters. “This operation has a precise goal which is the eradication of terrorism” in Libya.
Haftar, who sees himself as the chief of the “national armed forces” and has the support of rogue officers and army units as well as warplanes and helicopter gunships, seemed to act on his own accord.
Haftar’s threat to purge Benghazi of the “terrorists” is an affront to the authorities, who have struggled to stomp out lawlessness in the North African nation, which is awash with weapons and effectively ruled by a patchwork of former rebels.
Once seen as heroes, ex-rebels, particularly Islamists, have been blamed for attacks that have killed dozens of members of security forces, judges and foreigners in Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 revolt.
Meanwhile, a tentative calm was shattered when a war plane bombed an Islamist position in the northwest of the city, an ex-rebel said.
“We fired at the plane which missed its target,” said the source, adding that there were no casualties.
It was not immediately clear who carried out the raid, which came after Haftar spokesman Colonel Mohammad Hijazi advised residents in western and southern districts of Benghazi to evacuate their homes.
Earlier this year, Haftar caused a stir when he announced an “initiative” aimed at suspending the interim government and parliament.
That sparked concern on social media that a coup might be in the offing, but the government was quick to quash them and insist it was in control.
The army says Haftar is backed by tribes, army defectors and ex-rebels who are opposed to the central government.
The army’s high command declared all of Benghazi and its suburbs a “no-fly zone until further notice,” state-run LANA news agency said.
“All military planes flying over the city will be shot down by army units… and units of the revolutionaries [ex-rebels],” LANA added.
It is not clear if the fledgling army, which is still trying to bolster its capacity, has the means to carry out that threat.
Friday’s clashes wound down after Haftar’s forces pulled out of Benghazi.
The violence came weeks after the government acknowledged for the first time the existence of “terrorist groups” in Libya and said it was mobilising against them.
And it comes two weeks after extremist gunmen, including from Ansar Sharia, stormed police headquarters in Benghazi, triggering fighting that killed nine soldiers.
Haftar’s forces pounded former rebel groups on Friday, focusing in particular on Ansar Sharia, an organisation designated by the United States as a terrorist group.
The offensive also comes at a time of high political tensions in Libya where Islamists and liberals are in a tug-of-war, particularly after the disputed election this month of Islamist-backed Thani.
Haftar defected from Gaddafi’s forces in the late 1980s and spent nearly 20 years in the United States before returning home to join the uprising. He has been accused of being in the pay of the Americans.
In other developments, voting was underway in Tripoli for local councils to replace those formed after the uprising, with an average turnout at polling stations after a lacklustre campaign.