At least 13 people were reportedly killed in the Libyan port city of Benghazi today after clashes between pro-government soldiers and Islamist militia forces escalated and a naval ship was struck in the middle of and engagement involving aircraft and armored vehicles.
Photos from the scene show thick black smoke rising up out of the vessel docked in the port, although initially the circumstances surrounding the smoke were unclear.
In video footage from the blast, the smoke can be seen at a further distance coming from the port and sounds of artillery fire are also audible.
While an army spokesperson initially reported that a small oil tanker was on fire, according to the Associated Press witnesses said that a navy ship had taken the hit.
Army spokesman Mohammed Hegazi told the AP that the militia fighters had launched rocket-propelled grenades from tall buildings in the port district of Libya's second largest city. According to Reuters, unverified reports indicated the struck vessel may have been sinking.
The attacks took place in the eastern city, a key transit point for items like fuel and wheat, on Monday afternoon, after officials reportedly told residents to evacuate the Assabri district where the port is located.
On Sunday military officials had called for an evacuation of the area for noon local time today. Residents had started to leave in advance of planned army activity in the city, where the government is trying to recapture areas grabbed up by the Islamists in July. The pro-government military operation in Benghazi, which has been going for two weeks, has left at least 243 people dead — including today's casualties and civilians.
With the fighting in Benghazi dating back to May, Frederic Wehrey, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Program, told VICE News that "it's a battle for control of the city."
The army is now reportedly in control of parts of Benghazi in southeastern areas. According to Al Jazeera, a special forces spokesman said they had regained control of its headquarters in the southeast. The spokesman also reported that the eastern part of the city was now controlled by the government-backed troops.
Benghazi's army is backed by former general Khalifa Hifter who some accuse of receiving military assistance from Egypt. The military leader has denied these connections. Wehley, who met with Hiftar in June, explained that the leader models himself after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, adding that Hiftar's offensive against militias in Benghazi is helping Egypt's security situation by default. While Egypt has a big stake in the situation in Libya, Wehley was skeptical that the country would send in troops.
As the military attempts to push out insurgents in Benghazi, Libya remains torn between two governments struggling for control. Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, whose government carries international recognition, was pushed out of Tripoli to the city of Tobruk in August when a separate group — led by Omar al-Hassi and calling itself the General National Congress (GNC) — took the capital and claimed control of the parliament. The GNC in Tripoli does not recognize al-Thinni's government in Tobruk, located near the Egyptian border.
While the army may be pushing back against jihadists in Libya, Wehley cautioned against framing the entirety of Libya's problems as pro-government versus Islamists. In the case of the government struggle in the west, however, he explained that this conflict has ethnic and dimensions.
"What this is about is different tribes and families, and different power groups fighting for control," Wehley said, explaining that while negotiations with the jihadists in Benghazi are unlikely, there is a possibility for a resolution between the two governments.
On Monday, more than three years after the ousting of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi instigated the recent years of instability, al-Hassi made said the country needed to have "new elections" saying that al-Thinni's government in Tobruk had "lost its legitimacy." Benghazi was the center point of the 2011 revolution in Libya.
According to Wehley, however, new elections do not seem feasible. He said one potential path is through international involvement to get the House of Representatives in Tobruk to be more inclusive and bring in some of the more pragmatic members of the GNC coalition — recognizing that many of the hardliners, or obstructionists, will not join.
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