Valdosta Daily Times

May 16, 2014

Libyan forces battle 2 militias in country's east

ESAM MOHAMED
Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya — Fierce fighting broke out Friday in eastern Libya between army troops believed to be loyal to a rogue general and two influential militias in the city of Benghazi, an offensive launched without government approval that the country's military leader called a "coup."

Military aircraft and helicopters, apparently under the command of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, flew over Benghazi, Libyan security officials said. On the ground, Hifter's troops besieged the bases of the Rafallah al-Sahati, which is led by an Islamist commander, and a militia known as February 17, the officials said.

Hifter's forces fired missiles at February 17's base in the attack, the officials added. Fighting also took place near a cement plant.

The security officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to journalists.

Mohammed al-Hegazi, a spokesman for Hifter, told Libyan television station Al-Ahrar that some military units joined Hifter and his forces in their fight against the Islamist militia.

He said the operation, called the "Dignity of Libya," include air forces and special forces. Al-Hegazi said Hifter's forces now controlled the two militia bases.

The "clashes will not stop until the operation achieves its goals," al-Hegazi said. He said forces based at the city's airport also joined Hifter. It was not immediately possible to verify his claims.

The clashes wounded nine people and killed a colonel in front of his house, health officials in two local hospitals said. Another hospital official said his medical center received 16 wounded fighters from Hifter's forces.

Libya's Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Abdel-Salam Gadallah al-Obeidi, speaking from the capital, Tripoli, on state television, said the attacking forces were under Hifter's control. However, he did not address claims that federal forces fought on Hifter's side.

Al-Obeidi said he will ban any forces from entering Benghazi to join Hifter, without elaborating. Al-Obeidi later described the unfolding events as a "coup."

Interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani later said only one jet moved out to attack the militias without government permission, along with some 120 soldiers.

"This is an attempt to use the current security situation to stand against the revolution... The era of coup is gone," he said in a televised statement.

Militias grew in number and power after the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, taking advantage of Libya's weak and disarrayed military and police.

Friday's assault marks the first time that army units have fought unilaterally and joined forces with Hifter, who once headed the army under Gadhafi but defected in the 1980s. After Gadhafi's ouster, he was assigned to help rebuild the forces, but he was removed soon after.

In February, Hifter appeared in an online video aired on several Libyan television stations. Wearing a military uniform, he stood in front of a map of Libya and the national flag and claimed to speak for the "general command of the Libyan army."

In the video, he said the military intended to "rescue" the nation with a five-point plan that involved suspending parliament and the government and replacing them with a presidential committee and a defense council, which he would head.

Libya's government viewed Hifter's statement as a coup attempt. Later Libyan media reports claimed Hifter held meetings in air bases in eastern Libya to win the support of the military.