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Death Toll Climbs as Fierce Battle to ‘Liberate’ Benghazi Continues

Pro-government forces led by Qaddafi-era general Khalifa Haftar are fighting Islamist militiamen for control of Libya's second-largest city.
October 18, 2014, 3:15pm
Photo by Mohammed el-Sheikhy/AP

At least 52 people have been killed in Benghazi as a fierce battle continues to rage between pro-government forces and Islamist militiamen fighting for control of Libya's second-largest city.

Backed by government army units and civilian fighters, nominally retired General Khalifa Haftar launched an operation Wednesday to "liberate" Benghazi from rebel forces who have overrun swathes of the city, including Benghazi University where fighting concentrated Friday, local media reported.

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Soldiers and civilians were among 16 people who died in a single day Friday — the fiercest and most deadly yet — medics told AFP. The casualties were primarily concentrated in the densely populated central Al-Majouri district, which is home to Mohamed al-Zahawi, chief of the Islamist extremist group Ansar al-Sharia.

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The latest deaths add to some 100 people killed across the country in the last week alone. Intense street fighting in Benghazi broke out between rival forces that used weapons of all calibers and at least one suicide bombing, according to local media.

Libya has been gripped by turmoil and infighting since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Rival rebel militias that once fought alongside the army to overthrow the leader have since wrestled for power, land, influence, and post-war spoils, with the government powerless to rein in the sectarian factions.

Haftar is a former Qaddafi-era general that was in exile for several years before returning to Libya to rejoin the war in 2011. He launched "operation dignity" earlier this May — a failed attempt to oust the Islamist forces from Benghazi — that the Libyan government later claimed was a coup attempt.

But Haftar's support in the army ranks continued to swell as the situation has spiraled out of control, especially since late July after allied Islamist militias rejected the country's June parliamentary election results, overran most of Benghazi, and took the capital, Tripoli, where they have since set up their own rival government.

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Meanwhile, Libya's elected prime minister Abdullah al-Thani and the country's House of Representatives, which have both been recognized by the international community, decamped to the far eastern city of Tobruk this summer amid rising clashes and insecurity. They have had little choice but to come under Haftar's protection and pledge military support for his latest operation to oust the rival militia, consisting of Islamist and rebels factions from the western city of Misrata fighting under the collective banner "Operation Dawn."

Earlier this week, VICE News reported that Egyptian aircraft, flown by Libyan pilots, had joined in the battle against Islamist-allied militia, bombing their positions in Benghazi.

Since Wednesday, airstrikes targeted Islamist militia in the districts of Al-Lithi, Al-Massaken, and Bouatni, southeast of the Mediterranean city, witnesses told AFP.

Egypt's bombing of Benghazi will cost Libya dearly. Read more here.

The Libyan Red Cross called for a ceasefire Thursday, "even for one hour," so families trapped by street fighting in Benghazi could escape the area.

Some 287,000 residents in Tripoli and Benghazi have fled their homes since the violence broke out, with at least 100,000 people now internally displaced, according to UN figures.

VICE News' Alaa al-Ameri contributed to this report.