CAIRO, EGYPT — Libyan military forces loyal to former army chief of staff General Khalifa Hafter are battling militiamen from the al-Qaida-affiliated Ansar al Shariah group in Benghazi, with planes and helicopters bombing Ansar al Shariah positions. Libyan TV says 20 people are dead and more than 80 are wounded.
Libyan warplanes overflew the skies of the city, as militia anti-aircraft gunners opened fire on them. The clashes reportedly began when Ansar al Shariah militiamen attacked a Libyan special forces battalion base with rockets and mortars, inflicting casualties. Amateur video showed rocket fire lighting the pre-dawn skies of the city.
The Libyan military joint operations spokesman, Ibrahim Sharah, said the militia attacked the army's al Saiqa Battalion 21 base. He said Ansar al Shariah militia vehicles on patrol opened fire on the special forces' base, to which army forces responded with their own fire. He said that after three hours of fighting, Libyan Army warplanes entered the fray to relieve forces on the ground.
The Libyan air force, which has sworn loyalty to Hafter, has bombed Islamist militia bases in Benghazi a number of times during the past week.
Libyan TV showed live images of empty streets in parts of Benghazi during the day, with the muffled sound of shells falling in the background. The TV said stores were closed and end-of-year student exams had been postponed.
The report said casualties were being taken to several hospitals. Sky News Arabia reported that dead bodies were seen lying in the street in several parts of the city.
Libyan TV played music to honor those who have died in recent fighting. The TV said many Benghazi residents have “expressed support for the army operation against Islamist militiamen” being led by General Hafter.
Hafter has locked horns with Libya's interim parliament and its two rival prime ministers, each of whom claim to represent the government. Hafter has called the national assembly illegal, since its mandate ran out in February.
He indicated last week that he would not support a June 25 election for a new assembly “because of the deteriorating security situation.”