TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) â€” Libya’s military banned flights Saturday over the eastern city of Benghazi, a day after troops loyal to a rogue general attacked Islamist militias in violence that killed 36 people, authorities said.
The North African nation’s weak central government already described the offensive Friday by Gen. Khalifa Hifter, which included military air support, as tantamount to a “coup.” And as militiamen reported a separate helicopter attack on one of their bases Saturday, the violence again showed how precarious government control remains after the 2011 civil war that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
In a statement, the Libyan military’s central command said it will target any military aircraft flying over Benghazi, where the country’s uprising against Gadhafi began. The city’s airport remained closed Saturday for a second day, though stores reopened and traffic appeared normal.
Hifter’s forces withdrew to the city limits after attacking the bases of two Islamist militias, Rafallah al-Sahati and February 17.The two militias later returned to the bases. Libya’s Health Ministry said Saturday that the offensive killed 36 people and wounded 139.
Hifter’s offensive, apparently backed by some federal troops, comes amid rising violence in Benghazi blamed on powerful Islamist militias acting outside of government control. Hifter’s spokesman said his offensive, called the “Dignity of Libya,” aimed to bring these militias under government control and end lawlessness in the city.
Speaking Saturday on local television station Libya Awalan, Hifter’s spokesman Mohammed al-Hegazi urged residents of several Benghazi neighborhoods to leave their homes to avoid getting caught in future fighting as they prepare for further operations there. Al-Hegazi accused the militias of using civilians as shields. He said the operation against the militias will continue “until Libya is cleansed” of extremists.
In response, the Islamist al-Sahati militia issued a statement warning residents of the neighborhoods near Hifter troops to flee before their own offensive. They described the area as controlled “by coup leaders, criminals and enemies of religion and the nation.”
Mohammed Boqoffa, a spokesman for February 17, told a local television station Al-Nabaa that a military helicopter attacked a militia base Saturday, but wounded no one. He said militiamen fired missiles at the helicopter in response. Another February 17 spokesman named Ali Mohammed told the station that Hifter’s troops illegally controlled the city’s military air force base.
Hifter’s spokesman denied there was an attack Saturday, saying the helicopter only flew a reconnaissance mission.
Many in the country are divided over the offensive, having grown impatient with the central government’s inability to rein in the militias. Last week, three protesters were killed during a protest outside the base of one of the militias. The incident led Libya’s justice minister to ask February 17 to abandon its base. The militia ignored the request.
Those in Benghazi, considered the heart of Libya’s oil-rich eastern region, long complained that Gadhafi’s government starved it of resources during his 42-year rule. Since his ouster, militias rooted in the rebels that fought him have become the real power in Libya, including increasingly radical groups taking hold in Benghazi.
The past two years, militias have killed some 200 prominent figures, including top police officials, prosecutors, judges and activists, mostly in the country’s east. A Sept. 11, 2012, attack there killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
“The problem is we don’t have a central command or a government to begin with. They are sitting in one room in Tripoli that they can’t even protect,” said Essam al-Jahani, a political analyst in Benghazi. “The residents of Benghazi need help from anyone. There are honorable people who joined Hifter.”
Hifter, who once headed the army under Gadhafi but defected in the 1980s, is a controversial figure in Libya. After Gadhafi’s ouster, he was assigned to help rebuild the country’s military, but he was removed soon after. He appeared in an online video in February and proclaimed he intended to “rescue” the nation. Authorities described his declaration as a coup attempt.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.