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Libyans celebrate 'liberation' of Benghazi

Forces loyal to Tobruk government reportedly kick out militant groups from Libya's second city after two years of trying
A man celebrates in Benghazi on 23 February (AFP)

Libyans took to the streets of Benghazi on Tuesday to celebrate the apparent victory of Libyan forces over militant groups that had held parts of the city for years, according to reports.

The AP news agency said troops loyal to the Tobruk government pushed into the area of al-Laithi, forcing a withdrawal of militant Islamist fighters. 

Unconfirmed reports have since emerged that Special French Commando forces recently arrived in Benghazi to support the military operations, a Libyan military source told Huffington Post Arabi. 

The unnamed sources said that the forces were stationed in Benina Air Base, east of Benghazi, and had set up a common operations room with the Libyan forces to coordinate the action. However, the sources did not say how many troops had been sent and the nature of the reported force remains unclear with various reports describing them as either mercenaries, commandos or special forces. 

French authorities have not confirmed the action and have yet to make any statement on the matter. 

The Americans were forced to admit last year that they had sent special foces into Libya, with rumours circulating that the English and possibly French had followed suit although Paris and London have thus far declined to comment on the matter. 

Families return 

As the pro-Tobruk forces advanced, families who had fled al-Laithi began to flood back into the district to revisit their homes, AFP reported. 

Libyans posted pictures on Twitter of the celebrations of soldiers and residents.

Areas of the city had been controlled by Ansar al-Sharia and more recently the Islamic State (IS) group.

General Khalifa Haftar, the commander in chief of forces fighting for the Tobruk government, has been trying to defeat the groups for two years.

"We entered most of the sectors controlled by terrorist groups in Laithi," in central Benghazi, a military source told AFP.

A spokesman for Haftar's troops said they would soon announce the formal liberation of al-Laithi.

However, IS still hold the coastal city of Sirte and have been gaining ground, with analysts warning that without military intervention or a unified Libyan response, they are well poised to expand further. 

Soldiers hug on the streets of Benghazi, February 23 (AFP)

Libya has for years been torn apart by fighting and political disunity, with the country now having two parliaments - one in Tobruk, which is internationally recognised, and another in Tripoli backed by the Libya Dawn militia movement.

The UN has put forward a plan to reunify the parliaments into a provisional single government.

However, efforts towards reunification took a step back on Tuesday when Tobruk parliament members failed to turn up in sufficient numbers to vote on backing a unity government.

"The required quorum [89 members of parliament] was not reached, so the president of the chamber adjourned the session," MP Mohamed al-Abbani told AFP.

Another parliamentarian, Ali al-Qaidi, confirmed that "the necessary quorum was not reached and the session for the vote was adjourned until next week".

Qaidi said there were differences between MPs on the proposed new government's programme.

Another member, Khalifa al-Daghari, spoke of disagreements over the order of the day, with some MPs also wanting to vote on the political agreement reached in December in Morocco on the 2011 constitution before holding the vote of confidence.

The Government of National Accord, a unity government comprising 32 ministers from both parliaments, was formed under the auspices of the UN and has been beset with inner problems, with members stating that the number is too large.

Last week, the presidential council, born of an agreement in December between representatives of the rival parliaments, put forward a unity government of 18 members.

Since the summer of 2014, Libya has had rival administrations as a result of the recognised government fleeing Tripoli after a militia alliance overran the capital.

That alliance has established its own administration and parliament called the General National Congress, while the internationally recognised legislature is based in the eastern city of Tobruk.

#Libya - intense exchange between pro & anti GNA camps in #Tobruk led to postponing of today's session for lack of quorum.

— Mohamed Eljarh (@Eljarh) February 23, 2016

The recognised parliament wrapped up debate on Monday on the line-up and policies of the new government.

The UN has been pushing both sides to back a unity government and UN Libya envoy Martin Kobler took to Twitter early Tuesday to push for the vote of confidence to be held.

He wrote that House of Representatives' endorsement of the unity government "in its entirety is crucial. Fate of #Libya is at stake. National interest should override any other".

In addition to having rival administrations born of the chaos following the 2011 revolution that ousted Muammar Gaddafi, oil-rich Libya also has a growing problem caused by the Islamic State group.

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