Rogue Libyan general launches air strikes against Islamist militia camp

No casualties in Khalifa Haftar's attack on militant compound in Benghazi, in which anti-aircraft batteries returned fire.
Mohamed Zahawi, head of the Benghazi brigade of Ansar al-Sharia, speaks in Benghazi on Tuesday. Mr Zahawi warned the United States on Tuesday against interfering in the country's crisis or face worse than their conflicts in Somalia Iraq, or Afghanistan. Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters
Mohamed Zahawi, head of the Benghazi brigade of Ansar al-Sharia, speaks in Benghazi on Tuesday. Mr Zahawi warned the United States on Tuesday against interfering in the country's crisis or face worse than their conflicts in Somalia Iraq, or Afghanistan. Esam Omran Al-Fetori / Reuters

TRIPOLI // Forces loyal to a rogue former Libyan general carried out an air raid yesterday on a Islamist militia camp in Benghazi.

Two airstrikes hit the compound as part of Gen Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against Islamists.

“A warplane carried out raids on a camp of the ‘February 17 Martyrs Brigades’,” said Ahmed Al Jazaoui, a militiaman.

No casualties were reported in the attack, in which anti-aircraft batteries returned fire.

Gen Haftar, who returned to Libya from American exile in 2011 to join the uprising that toppled and killed dictator Muammar Qaddafi, launched an anti-jihadist campaign in Benghazi on May 16 when warplanes also bombed February 17 positions.

Subsequent fighting killed at least 79 people.

The powerful brigade is made up of former rebels, including Islamist extremists, and is suspected of links with Ansar Al Sharia, a group classified as a terrorist group by Washington.

The strikes came less than 24 hours after gunmen attacked an interior ministry unit tasked with protecting Libya’s outgoing government, officials said, as Washington readied a possible evacuation of its embassy amid the turmoil.

“The government strongly condemns the attack on an interior ministry force in charge of protecting the government,” the cabinet said, without reporting casualties.

The attack in Tripoli on Tuesday night was the work of “outlaws”, said the government of outgoing prime minister Abdullah Al Thani, who has resigned and is to handover to his contested successor, Islamist-backed businessman Ahmed Miitig.

Witnesses said a pro-Islamist militia was behind the raid on the interior ministry unit, which opposes the nomination of Mr Miitig, himself targeted in an attack hours earlier.

The unit, which the outgoing adminstration had called in for protection only hours earlier, was evicted from the cabinet offices.

Libya’s interim parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), has passed a vote of confidence in a Miitig-led government, which critics have charged was illegally elected and imposed by Islamists.

On Tuesday, gunmen attacked the family home of Mr Miitig, who was elected prime minister this month in a chaotic GNC vote, after Mr Thani resigned last month, claiming he and his family had been targeted.

The premier and his family were in the Tripoli house at the time, but they escaped unharmed.

Amid political and security turmoil in Libya three years after a Nato-backed uprising ousted longtime dictator Muammar Qadafi, the US state department called on Americans to leave the country immediately.

“Due to security concerns, the department of state has limited staffing at embassy Tripoli and is only able to offer very limited emergency services to US citizens in Libya,” a US travel warning said on Tuesday.

“Because of the presumption that foreigners, especially US citizens, in Libya may be associated with the US government or US NGOs, travellers should be aware that they may be targeted for kidnapping, violent attacks, or death,” it added.

“US citizens currently in Libya should exercise extreme caution and depart immediately.”

Earlier on Tuesday, the United States announced it was deploying an amphibious assault ship with about 1,000 marines off the coast of Libya in case the US embassy needed to be evacuated.

The USS Bataan was to be in the area in a matter of days, said a defence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, adding it was a precautionary measure.

The precautions come amid persistent controversy over a September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in which ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

Libya has been dogged by power struggles among rival former rebel militias and is awash with arms.

Successive governments have failed to control the myriad militias that have carved out fiefdoms across the country, and Mr Miitig is Libya’s fifth premier since Qadafi’s ouster.

He is due to lead a transition until fresh parliamentary elections are held on June 25.

Mr Miitig assumed office to already mounting opposition and to rogue ex-general Khalif Haftar gathering support for a deadly offensive he launched against jihadists in the lawless eastern city of Benghazi on May 16.

Near daily attacks blamed on jihadists have targeted security forces in Benghazi, and several military units have thrown their weight behind Mr Haftar.

Meanwhile, jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia, targeted by Mr Haftar who says the country has become a terrorist hub, has called on Libyans to repudiate him.

The GNC has accused Mr Haftar of launching a coup, but he said the people had given him a mandate to crush jihadists after thousands rallied in his support in Benghazi and Tripoli on Friday.

* Agence France-Press

Published: May 28, 2014 04:00 AM

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