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Militant group vows to defend Benghazi against 'war against Islam'

Ansar al-Sharia have issued a statement saying they will counter attacks by renegade general Khalifa Hafter in Benghazi
Ansar al-Sharia have grown in power and influence since the Libyan revolution in 2011 (AFP)

Libyan militant group Ansar al-Sharia has vowed to defend Benghazi against a coalition of forces led by renegade army general Khalifa Hafter, with fighting between rival militias poised to restart.

In a statement released on Tuesday Ansar al-Sharia said the attacks led by Hafter are “a war against…Islam orchestrated by the United States and its Arab allies”.

"A confrontation is now inevitable to defend our city and our land," Ansar al-Sharia, a designated terrorist organisation by the United States, said in its statement.

"We will act with force against anyone who enters the city or attacks it, just as was done to the forces sent by Gaddafi," it added, in a clear reference to the routing of forces sent to Benghazi by former leader Muammar Gaddafi during an attempt to crush the 2011 revolution.

Forces loyal to former rebel commander Khalifa Haftar have pulled out of Benghazi after leading attacks on Friday that killed at least 79 people and left over 150 injured. He has, however, vowed to re-enter Benghazi to cleanse it of Islamist militias he says have taken over the country and on Monday special forces in the city pledged their allegiance to him.

The Benghazi attacks have been called “Operation Dignity” by Haftar, who served as an army colonel under Gaddafi before defecting in 1987 and living in exile in the United States for 20 years. He returned to Libya during the 2011 revolution, helping to overthrow Gaddafi before retiring from the army, but has risen to prominence again heading the non-governmental “National Army”.

The statement by Ansar al-Sharia noted there is growing public support in Benghazi for substantive measures to deal with feuding former rebel militias, who have controlled various parts of the city since the uprising three years ago.

The group said this should be done “under the banner of sharia, not under the banner of secularism and democracy”, calling for militias to “sit down and engage in dialogue…to resolve differences”.

Reports coming from social media on Tuesday suggested Ansar al-Sharia have sent armed members of their group west to Benghazi from their stronghold port city of Derna, to counter re-gathering Haftar forces.

After Friday’s fighting a video was posted to Facebook reportedly showing fighters of Ansar al-Sharia in Derna, who were shouting “we’re coming for you Obama” in an apparent reference to their belief that outside forces are at play in Haftar’s Benghazi offensive.

A spokesperson for Haftar is reported to have denied allegations of external influence, but called on Egypt to help secure their eastern border.

Military-backed Egyptian authorities, supported by regional allies who supported last year’s coup, have been accused of being “committed to a formula of exporting military dictatorship across North Africa”, in a column by MEE’s Editor-in-Chief David Hearst.

Rumours of external influence on Libya have focused on retired general Haftar, who has long been accused of working secretly with the United States, where he spent more than 20 years living in exile. The Gaddafi regime were the first to accuse him of having links with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and during the 2011 revolution rival rebel commanders made the same accusation.

Libyan analysts have speculated that if the fighting escalates, Libyans who are fighting in the Syrian civil war could return to help in the resistance to Haftar’s forces.

Hundreds of Libyans are believed to have travelled to Syria to fight in the civil war there, emboldened by their success in toppling the Gaddafi regime in 2011.