Civilians evacuate Benghazi as army plans fresh attack on militants
Dozens of families left western districts of Benghazi Saturday, following fighting between the Libyan National Army and Islamist militants. Benghazi's airport remained closed, and the death toll from Friday's fighting rose to 43.
Benghazi/Tripoli, Libya — The self-declared Libyan National Army told civilians on Saturday to leave parts of Benghazi before it launched a fresh attack on Islamist militants, a day after at least 43 were killed in the worst clashes in the Libyan city for months.
Dozens of families could be seen packing up and driving away from western districts of the port city where Islamist militants and LNA forces led by renegade retired General Khalifa Haftar, had fought for hours on Friday.
"We urge citizens in Benghazi's districts Quarsha, Al-Hawari and Sidi Faraj to evacuate their homes from today," Haftar's spokesman Mohamed al-Hejazi said.
Friday's violence prompted the Libyan army to declared a no-fly zone after Haftar's forces used at least one helicopter during the fighting, according to a statement on the chief of staff's website.
There was no fighting on Saturday but Haftar's forces said they would again hunt down Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamist militant groups which roam unchallenged in lawless Benghazi.
A Health Ministry official said the death toll from the latest violence had risen to 43, with more than 100 people wounded. Medical workers said the toll could rise higher.
"More bodies are coming in from areas outside Benghazi," said a worker in a hospital which received at least 40 bodies.
A security official, asking not to be named, said Islamist militants had snatched soldiers late on Friday at checkpoints they control, killed them and then dumped their bodies outside the city.
Authorities extended the closure of Benghazi's Benina airport on Saturday.
Egypt's state carrier Egyptair decided to halt flights to Benghazi until the security situation improved, an Egyptian security official said.
Since the 2011 civil war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi after 42 years of one-man rule, Libya has been unable to impose authority over brigades of former rebels who refuse to disarm and have carved out regional fiefdoms.
Benghazi, the cradle of the NATO-backed uprising against Gaddafi, in particular has struggled to curb violence and stem attacks blamed on Ansar al-Sharia, which often operates openly.
Washington designates it a terrorist organization.
Haftar, a leading figure in the anti-Gaddafi revolt, in February stirred rumors of a coup by appearing in military uniform to call for a presidential committee to be formed to govern until new elections.
It was not clear how much support he commands, but it seems likely his forces are drawn from the country's nascent army, which is still in training. Tripoli's government said in February he had no authority and threatened legal action.
Libya's government is fragile and the parliament almost paralyzed by rivalries, with little progress to full democracy made since 2011. A planned new constitution is still unwritten and the country is on its third prime minister since March.
U.S. and European countries are helping build up the regular army but Libya's armed forces and government cannot control the brigades of ex-rebels and militants who once fought Gaddafi.
The North African nation's vital oil export industry has suffered badly and is often targeted by armed protesters seeking a greater share of oil wealth, federalist power for the regions or just better basic services.
Since last summer, armed protesters have repeatedly closed down ports and oilfields, bringing production down to around 200,000 barrels per day from the 1.4 million bpd that the OPEC member state produced before the protests erupted
Reporting by Feras Bosalum, Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli and Ulf Laessing; Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla in Cairo