Libya’s Benghazi sees battles for control

Fighting continues between rival militias as Egypt rejects reports of involvement in attacks on Islamist positions.

Forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, a former Libyan general, have relaunched a bid to reclaim Libya’s second city Benghazi from Islamist fighters, amid reports of assistance from Egypt and support from Libya’s recognised government.

Sources told Al Jazeera that gunfire and explosions were heard early on Wednesday and that aircraft belonging to Haftar’s forces were striking targets around the eastern city.

Witnesses said tanks and jets had targeted the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, a rival to Haftar’s forces which operates in parts of Benghazi.

The group is part of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, a military coalition allied with the al-Qaeda-linked armed group Ansar al-Sharia and control most of the city.

Egypt accused

The fighting came amid unconfirmed reports that Egypt had put its weight behind Haftar’s troops in its bid to “liberate” Benghazi.

This clearly shows a direct and blatant interference by the governments of Egypt and the UAE. We hope that the brothers in the UAE and Egypt learn from the previous mistakes and stop meddling in our affairs.

by Abdul Rahman Sweihli, Libyan politician

The Associated Press news agency quoted two Egyptian government officials as saying that Egyptian fighter jets were bombing positions of Islamist militias in Benghazi.

The officials, who have firsthand knowledge of the operation, said the use of the aircraft was part of an Egyptian-led operation against the fighters that would at a later stage involve Libyan ground troops recently trained by Egyptian forces, AP said.

Libyan politician Abdul Rahman Sweihli backed the accusations against Egypt, saying that the Libyan air force was not capable of the attacks that Benghazi was witnessing. 

“We know very well the limited power of the Libyan air force and we know it is quite impossible for the Libyan air force to shell the city of Benghazi and another areas on a daily basis,” Sweihli told Al Jazeera from Tripoli.

“This is way above what they are capable of. This clearly shows a direct and blatant interference by the governments of Egypt and the UAE.

“We hope that the brothers in the UAE and Egypt learn from the previous mistakes and stop meddling in our affairs. We want good relations with everyone and chose dialogue and peace among the Libyans instead of taking sides,” 
Sweihli added.

However, the Egyptian state media later quoted Alaa Youssef, the presidential spokesman, as rejecting the reports of the country’s involvement in the Libyan bombing.

On August 26, US officials said the UAE conducted air strikes against Islamist militias using airbases in Egypt, reports that Egypt later denied.

Army’s backing pledged

In another development, forces controlled by Libya’s internationally recognised government, the House of Representatives, said on Wednesday they were supporting Haftar’s operations in Benghazi.

“The Libyan army claims Operation Dignity as one of its own campaigns,” Colonel Ahmed al-Mesmari, spokesman of the national army, said, AP said, adding that “now it is one operation of the army, among others”.

The North African nation has been gripped by turmoil since the 2011 uprising against long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi. It has sunk deeper into instability with two rival parliaments and governments.

A parliament, elected in June, is recognised by the international community but contested by the militia controlling most of Tripoli, where an alliance of armed groups hold sway, and by other armed groups who dominate Benghazi.

Abdullah al-Thinni, Libya’s prime minister, and his elected parliament have moved to the far eastern city of Tobruk after the capital Tripoli was seized by the rival militia members, who set up their own administration and cabinet.

Dozens of people, including soldiers, have been killed in violence in Benghazi in the past several days, the AFP news agency reported, citing military and hospital sources.