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Oct 15, 2014 10:57 AM

Clashes in Libya's Benghazi kill at least 3

The Associated Press

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) Islamist militias fought Wednesday with forces loyal to a renegade general who vows to seize the eastern city of Benghazi, as a top militia commander accused Egypt of bombing his positions with warplanes.

The city, the second largest in Libya and the cradle of 2011 uprising that led to the downfall of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, has been held by Islamist militias since the summer when they defeated forces allied with Gen. Khalifa Hifter.

Hifter, once an army chief under Gadhafi before joining the opposition decades ago, has announced an offensive to drive out the Islamist militias. Many Libyans as well as some army troops and even parts of the government support him, although his popularity has waned after militias beat back his troops.

Wednesday's airstrikes preluded what many believe to be a concerted push against the Benghazi militias, and Hifter has described the fighting as a "turning point" in his war against Islamists.

By midday, there were conflicting reports over who controlled several military barracks.

Residents contacted by telephone said they saw warplanes striking camps of several Islamist militias fighting under an umbrella group called the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. Armed residents have set up checkpoints and cordoned off their neighborhoods to prevent militias from using their districts as staging ground for attacks against Hifter's forces, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

A top Islamist militia commander in Benghazi however said that his group's forces took over a pro-Hifter barracks housing tanks and a second said that three people have been killed in the fighting so far. He says the takeover of the barracks came after an Islamist suicide bomber blew himself up at the camp gates. They too spoke anonymously for the same reasons.

A security official allied to Hifter denied the claim, saying that the general's troops "liberated" one of the barracks controlled by "extremists," killing a leading member of the Ansar al-Shariah militia.

Ansar al-Shariah was implicated in the deadly assault on U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in 2012 which left four Americans dead including the ambassador.

"I am in the street right now, with my colleagues, and Hifter's forces are deployed to the center and engaged in fierce clashes," said the official, who is a member of Benghazi's official security body. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Reinforcing the perception that Libya has also become a proxy battleground for larger regional struggles with Turkey and Qatar backing the Islamist militias while Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE support their opponents, the commander accused the Egyptian government of sending its 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 Associated Press by telephone. He said the planes were taking off from airport in Bayda city in eastern Libya. "The Egyptians are bombing us day and night and only want to seed divisions among us here so people point guns at each other."


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