Libya’s army said Wednesday it had thrown its weight behind renegade former general Khalifa Haftar after his forces launched a new assault to retake the country’s second city Benghazi from Islamist militias.
Gunfire could be heard in several districts across the eastern port city from early morning Wednesday, a day after Haftar vowed to “liberate” Benghazi from the Islamists, who have seized control of large parts of the turmoil-gripped country.
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.”
Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni also said the “February 17” camp had been seized.
“The Benghazi area is now safe,” Thinni told the UAE-based Sky News Arabia TV channel.
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.