Middle East

Benghazi clashes test Libya's new government

The new Libyan government faces its first challenge as it attempts to end fighting in Benghazi.

Last updated: 18 May 2014 11:51
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The government insists the militias are legitimate [Al Jazeera]

Tripoli - Libya’s government imposed a no-fly zone over the embattled city of Benghazi following weekend clashes that left 70 dead and 140 injured.

Residents of Benghazi, the second largest city in Libya, woke up on Friday to the roaring sound of jets and the whistling of bullets flying overhead. Col Khalifa Hiftar, a rogue Libyan army colonel, began an operation set to rid Libya of all Islamist groups, and he didn’t hold back.

Hiftar, a general who served under Muammar Gaddafi before fleeing to exile in the US in the 1980s, claimed his offensive had the backing of both the army and air force. He said the intention was to rid the city of the Islamist militias.

Approximately 6,000 soldiers on the ground took control of the city’s streets. They raided militia bases as jets and helicopters pounded them from the air.

The General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s parliament, declared a no-fly zone over east Libya on Saturday.

The imposition of a no-fly zone commands militias and air force units to shoot down any military aircraft in the skies over the city. Hours after the no-fly zone was imposed, air force jets allied with Hiftar again pounded one of the militia bases in central Benghazi. Nuri Abusahmain Chairman of the GNC referred to the attacks as "a coup on the state’s legitimacy".

Some tribal leaders in the east expressed support for Hiftar's offensive. They set up checkpoints on all roads leading to Benghazi to prevent reinforcements for the militia bases.

There are a number of militias in Benghazi including Ansar al-Sharia (Sharia supporters), allegedly responsible for the attack on US consulate in Benghazi, as well as the February 17 martyrs militia. Following the attack on the consulate, angry locals stormed militia bases and forcing them out of the city. Militia groups managed, however, to make a comeback to Benghazi when the government declared them to be official government forces.

RELATED: Libya: Swinging pendulums and political crematoria

The government, however, insists the militias are legitimate. Chief of Staff AbdulSalam Jadallah made it clear that this operation was not sanctioned by the government. He described the attack as "an act of treason and coup" and ordered the regular army and air force to end Hiftar's campaign.

For the past two years, Benghazi witnessed the killing and kidnapping of several hundred former and current army personnel. "We are Libya’s armed forces, and we are attacking the militias that have been killing us for months," Hiftar's spokesperson, Mohamed Hijazi, said.

Benghazi residents expressed frustration at the government's inaction. "Why doesn't the chief of staff come and fight this coup if he feels so strongly about and protect the people of Benghazi?" Younis Fanoush, political activist and analyst from Benghazi told Al Jazeera. "Where was the parliament when death, slaughter and kidnapping took over the city? Why do they only speak up now?"

Fighting later spread to the Libyan capital of Tripoli, when pro-Hiftar forces belonging to Zintan, a prominent town in the mountains south of Tripoli, attacked a militia base in the capital. The militia, led by Abdulgani Alkikli, who fought against Gaddafi in 2011, had come under attack from Zintan in the past.

Some residents of Tripoli took to the streets in support of Benghazi, as others like medical student Bahaa Edeen believe it is a turf war. "I think it’s just a fight for power, between Hiftar and the Islamists," Bahaa said.

Militias in Tripoli continue to roam the streets of the capital throughout the night, setting checkpoints as the sound of warning shots from all sides filled the air.


Al Jazeera
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