As families flee shelling in Benghazi, the city's residents take up arms against militant groups and Haftar's forces make tentative gains
Libyan tanks are on the move in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi, as the Libyan army and renegade General Khalifa Haftar intensify efforts to take back Libya’s second city from the militias who have been controlling it for months.
The Red Crescent requested a ceasefire in the embattled town on Friday, in order to allow the evacuation of families trapped by the renewed air and ground offensive against fighters in the town.
However, at least a dozen people were killed in fighting in a south-central suburb of Benghazi, and civilians fled heavy shelling in an eastern suburb of the town, with commentators on the ground reporting caravans of cars attempting to escape the bombing.
In a sign that the conflict over Benghazi is intensifying and spreading, residents of the town also clashed with members of militia group Ansar al-Sharia in four of the city’s central suburbs overnight on Thursday and into Friday morning, reports local news site al-Wasat.
There were further deaths and injuries in street fighting between Ansar al-Sharia fighters and residents of the south-central suburb of Majori on Friday afternoon, reports Sky News Arabia.
Mohamed Eljarh told MEE that the spread of fighting to the city's residents is not a new phenomenon, but that in this fight the link-up between army and non-army fighters seems to be better co-ordinated.
Eljarh, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Centre's Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, said the development is a source of concern.
"We may witness revenge attacks against people loosely affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia, even on families of the group’s members. This is because now it is not just professional army personnel conducting the offensive."
This seeming spread of the fight against Ansar al-Sharia to some of Benghazi’s population comes days after Wednesday’s “armed uprising” against extremist groups, called for by pro-army activists in Benghazi.
They had issued the call through social media and by sticking posters on the city’s walls.
Activists posted pictures of Libyan army vehicles parading through the city centre on Wednesday morning, using the hashtag #15OctoberUprising.
There were marches in cities throughout Libya to mark the date, and MEE contributor in Libya Mohammed Eljarh reported that Benghazi was “out in full force…against terrorism.”
A protest on Tuesday night in Bayda in support of the October 15 uprising (Photo credit: Twitter / @Libya_BreakNews)
Haftar makes gains in Benghazi
There are also reports on Friday that rogue General Khalifa Haftar, who is now waging his anti-militia campaign with the official backing of Libya’s army, has made some gains in the eastern city of Benghazi and around the town’s airport, which lies some 15 kilometres south of central Benghazi.
Haftar said on Tuesday that the current fight for Benghazi marks the end-stage of his Operation Dignity, a campaign launched in May with the aim of rooting out militia groups from Libya.
He said that after the campaign is concluded, he will step down and cede power to a younger army officer.
As people in Benghazi took up arms alongside Haftar’s campaign, the deputy head of the House of Representatives used a statement on Friday to throw his weight behind the ongoing Operation Dignity.
“Anybody would have done what Haftar did, because of the absence of the state and the army and the failure of the authorities to announce war on terrorism”, Emhemed Shaib said.
The statement from Shaib, who also represents the western city of Zawia at the HoR, backing Haftar’s anti-militia campaign in Benghazi came on the back of an admission by the rival parliament, the General National Congress, that their fighters are allied with militia in the town.
Omar al-Hassi, who heads HoR rival parliament the General National Congress, told the BBC on Thursday that forces affiliated to his GNC are also allied with Ansar al-Sharia in the fight in Benghazi.
“There are two forces there now. Some are Ansar al-Sharia, and some are revolutionaries from 2011. They fought together then, and they’re fighting together now.”
Ansar al-Sharia are one of the main armed groups that Haftar is once again aiming to smite in Benghazi, alongside the February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade.
The brigade, whose headquarters were bombarded but not captured by Haftar’s forces on Thursday, released a pugnacious statement on Friday promising further attacks.
“You will find out what the punishment will be for what you did to our brother Abdel Salam and his sons”, in a reference to the killing of a man and three of his sons on Wednesday.