Libya army backs ex-general in new assault on Islamists

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Smoke billows from buildings during clashes between Libyan security forces and armed Islamist groups in the eastern coastal city of Benghazi on August 23, 2014

Smoke billows from buildings during clashes between Libyan security forces and armed Islamist groups in the eastern coastal city of Benghazi on August 23, 2014 (AFP Photo/Abdullah Doma)

Benghazi (Libya) (AFP) - Libya's army threw its weight behind an ex-general who launched a new assault Wednesday to retake second city Benghazi from Islamist militias who have seized control of large parts of the turmoil-gripped country.

The North African nation has been gripped by turmoil since the 2011 uprising against long-time leader Moamer Kadhafi, with the authorities struggling to control powerful militias that ousted and killed him.

Gunfire and explosions were heard in Benghazi, an AFP correspondent said, after Haftar announced he was ready to "liberate" the city.

Witnesses said tanks had launched an assault against an Islamist militia known as the "February 17 Martyrs Brigade," while warplanes carried out raids on the group, whose headquarters is located west of the city.

At least 12 people were killed and 10 others wounded, including three soldiers, and a man and his three children, officials said.

A spokesman for Haftar's forces said they captured the February 17 headquarters after several hours of fighting, but there was no way to independently verify the claim.

Later, the army announced it had thrown its weight behind Haftar, who launched a first, unsuccessful, campaign against the Islamists in May, dubbing it "Operation Dignity".

"The Libyan army claims 'Operation Dignity'" as one of its own campaigns, spokesman Colonel Ahmed al-Mesmari said, adding, "now it is one operation of the army, among others."

- Difficult days to come -

In a speech broadcast late Tuesday, Haftar warned: "The coming hours and days will be difficult."

"I bring you today (a message) from the men of Operation Dignity saying that they are ready to fulfil their next goal, which is to liberate the city of Benghazi."

A spokesman for Haftar had earlier called on young people in Benghazi to secure their neighbourhoods and to keep out Islamist fighters, saying the former general's forces would enter the city on Wednesday.

The Islamists include the Ansar al-Sharia jihadist militia, which the United States has branded a "terrorist" organisation.

Haftar is a former Kadhafi general who spent years in exile before returning to join the 2011 revolution. When he launched Operation Dignity, the authorities accused him of trying to carry out a coup.

It was "an action outside state legitimacy and a coup d'etat," the army, government and parliament said in a joint statement.

Haftar denied having any interest in seizing power, countering that he wanted to rid the country of Islamist influence.

Oil-rich Libya has two competing governments and a host of rival armed militias jostling for influence in the largely lawless country.

One parliament, elected in June, is recognised by the international community but contested by the militia controlling most of Tripoli, and by the Islamists who dominate Benghazi.

And that parliament, at the end of August, named Colonel Abdel Razzak Nadhouri, one of the commanders of Operation Dignity, as the new army chief of staff.

Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani and the majority faction of that legislature decamped this summer to the far eastern city of Tobruk because of widespread insecurity, including in the capital, where a rival administration has been set up.

Since launching Operation Dignity, Haftar and his forces have been steadily beaten back to a final redoubt at Benghazi's airport.

Islamists had been attacking the airport almost daily since mid-September when Haftar launched his new offensive Wednesday.

At least 34 people have been killed in violence in Benghazi during the past two days, according to military and hospital sources.

On Tuesday, seven soldiers were killed in a car bomb near the airport, according to a Haftar spokesman.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon made a surprise visit to Libya on Saturday to urge warring factions to end the turmoil shaking the country.

Clashes between rival militias in Libya have driven an estimated 287,000 people from their homes, including about 100,000 who have fled the outskirts of the capital, the UN refugee agency said on Friday.