Egyptian warplanes are bombing positions held by Islamist militias in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi as part of a large-scale operation to rid the city of militants who have held sway there for months, two Egyptian government officials said on Wednesday.
The officials, who have firsthand knowledge of the operation, said the use of the aircraft was part of an Egyptian-led operation against the militiamen that would at a later stage involve Libyan ground troops recently trained by Egyptian forces.
The operation, they said, had been requested by the internationally recognized Libyan administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk. That elected administration was thrown out of the capital, Tripoli, by rival militias allied with Islamic political factions.
The officials said the operation also involves the use of an Egyptian navy vessel as a command center off the Mediterranean shore of Tobruk. Renegade Libyan general, Khalifa Hiftar, is not leading the operation, with Egypt dealing directly with a newly appointed Libyan chief of staff, who has visited Egypt several times in recent weeks.
The operation was expected to last three to six months, said the officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Libyan lawmaker Tareq al-Jorushi confirmed to the AP that Egyptian warplanes were taking part in the ongoing operation in Benghazi, but said that they were being flown by Libyan pilots. He says the planes were "rented" by the Libyan administration from Egypt. Al-Jorushi is also a member of the national security committee in the Tobruk-based parliament.
Libya has been mired in turmoil since the ouster of longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi's regime in 2011, with militias operating with impunity and the government unable to rein them in. In recent months, the militias in Tripoli and Benghazi swept through the two coastal cities, defeating anti-Islamist forces, setting up their own government and reviving an old parliament.
Egypt, which has publicly stated its support of the elected administration based in Tobruk, views the presence of hard-line extremists near its western border as a direct national security threat. It had made no secret of its willingness to offer military support to the Tobruk-based government, saying it would train and arm its forces.
Egypt's direct military involvement, however, reinforces the notion that Libya has become a proxy battleground for larger regional struggles, with Turkey and Qatar backing the Islamist militias while Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab emirates are supporting their opponents.
Earlier on Wednesday, a top Islamic militia commander based in Benghazi accused the Egyptian government of sending warplanes to hit his group's positions.
"We have photographs of the Egyptian warplanes and Egyptian naval forces stationed in eastern cities," he told the AP. He said the planes were taking off from an airport in Libya's eastern city of Bayda.
"The Egyptians are bombing us day and night and only want to seed divisions among us here so people point guns at each other," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
U.S. officials confirmed in the summer that Egyptian and UAE warplanes bombed militias' position in and near Tripoli. Egypt denied involvement, while the UAE said nothing publicly.