A string of assassinations over a 24-hour period in Benghazi has heightened tensions in the already blood-soaked Libyan city, raising fears that the killings could initiate an even deadlier wave of violence as the country threatens to fracture.
Benghazi residents said Saturday that they were stunned by the speed and scope of the assassinations, in which at least 10 people were gunned down from Thursday to Friday night. Among the dead: a former head of the Libyan air force and a prominent Muslim cleric.
One of those killed was Tawfiq Bensaud, an 18-year-old youth activist. In a photograph circulated on social media, Bensaud, with a toothy grin and a mop of unkempt hair, held a sign that read: “Smile, you are in Benghazi.”
“It’s depressing. The people who were killed came from all walks of life,” said Mustafa Sallak, a Benghazi-based doctor. “Soldiers, activists, sheiks,” he said. “People are afraid.”
No group has claimed responsibility for the killings, and locals and activists said it was unclear whether the assassinations were part of a coordinated assault on high-profile figures or were simply a series of tit-for-tat killings in a city plagued by lawlessness.
Benghazi, nestled on the Mediterranean coast in Libya’s restive east, has suffered from a security vacuum that has allowed militias to run amok. Once the hopeful heart of the 2011 rebellion against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, Benghazi quickly became a bellwether of the country’s descent into chaos. That violence has included the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.