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Libyan army urges Benghazi port area residents to evacuate

Libya's army, allied to the internationally recognised government, asks Benghazi port area residents to evacuate as it prepares for an offensive against Islamists
A Libyan man looks at smoke billowing on 22 October 2014 in Benghazi after Libya's airforce, loyal to former general Khalifa Haftar, pounded a building reportedly storing ammunition belonging to the Benghazi-based Islamist Ansar al-Sharia group (AFP)

Libya's army has asked residents to evacuate a central district of Beghanzi, where the country's seaport is located, as it prepares a military operation against Islamists, Reuters news agency reported citing Ahmed al-Mesmari, spokesman for the army's chief of staff.

At least 230 people have been killed since the army, which is backed by forces loyal to a former general, waged an offensive against Islamist groups in Libya's second-largest city. It is part of the ongoing strife that has taken over the oil-producing North African country three years after the ousting for its former dictator president Muammar Gaddafi.

"The chief of staff asks all residents of the Assabri district to leave by 12:00 noon [on Monday]," said al-Mesmari, according to Reuters. 

The district is Benghazi's main commercial area and also home to the seaport that is used for wheat and petroleum imports. 

The Ansar al-Sharia militant group is said to have fled there after the army seized other districts. 

Turmoil in Benghazi began when General Khalifa Hiftar, a former Gaddafi army chief who joined the opposition decades before the 2011 uprising, launched a campaign against Islamist militias, who were implicated in a series of assassinations and attacks on journalists, activists and security forces in the city, the New York Times reported. 

The internationally-recognised Libyan government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, joined ranks with Hiftar and on October 15 launched a wide offensive to retake Benghazi. 

Libya is divided between rival tribes and political factions with two governments vying for power and legitimacy, since armed groups from the western city of Misrata took over the capital, Tripoli, in August, setting up their own capital and assembly. Al-Thinni's government was forced to relocate to the east.

Western governments fear the country is headed towards civil war. The United Nations has been trying to bring together the House of Representative, the elected parliament allied to al-Thinni's government, for talks with its rival General National Congress, which set up its own parliament in Tripoli.  Islamist-backed Omar al-Hassi was elected as its prime minister.

Despite the turmoil, Libya continues to produce about 800,000 barrels of oil per day, about half of the amount produced in the summer of 2013, before protests and blockades drove production down, according to The Economist magazine.  

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