Tensions mount in Libya's Benghazi after deadly unrest

AFP , Tuesday 26 Nov 2013

Officials call for three days of civil disobedience in Benghazi starting Tuesday after deadly clashes between radical Islamist fighters and the Libyan army

A member of the Libyan army shoots towards members of Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia during clashes between the group and a Libyan army special forces unit in the Ras Obeida area in Benghazi November 25, 2013. (Photo: Reuter)

Local officials called for civil disobedience including strikes for three days from Tuesday in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi after deadly clashes between radical Islamist fighters and the army.

The call issued by Benghazi's city council came as defence ministry officials, according to a source, were in talks with jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia to provide its fighters a safe passage out of the city on condition they leave their weapons behind.

For several hours on Monday the army clashed with the jihadists after one of its patrols was attacked near the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia, a group blamed for the killing of the US ambassador in 2012.

The health ministry said seven people were killed in the fighting and around 50 wounded, revising an earlier toll of eight dead.

The fighting subsided in the afternoon and later the army deployed across Benghazi, taking control of key roads, an AFP correspondent reported.

Benghazi was the cradle of the 2011 uprising during which NATO-backed rebels toppled and then killed longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Since the end of the uprising, Libya has been hit by waves of deadly violence much of it blamed on heavily armed ex-rebels who have banded into militias each with its own ideology and allegiance.

The government has been struggling to integrate the former rebels into a regular army and police.

A statement from the city council called on residents to engage in "civil disobedience" through strikes and mourning for Benghazi's dead for three days from Tuesday.

The city council also urged Benghazi lawmakers who are members of the General National Council (GNC), Libya's top political body, to return home from Tripoli to help address the causes of the bloodletting.

Libyan authorities and tribal elders have been struggling to find a solution agreeable to all sides to end the violence that has rocked Benghazi for months.

Defence Minister Abdallah al-Teni announced that his ministry was in touch with Ansar al-Sharia to find a peaceful solution to the latest eruption, a GNC source said.

Ansar al-Sharia is requesting a "safe corridor" for its fighters to exit Benghazi, the source said, but military chiefs demand that they leave behind heavy weapons.

Tribal chiefs and Benghazi leaders were also involved in trying to mediate an end to the violence, GNC spokesman Omar Hmeidane told AFP.

And late Monday Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, fresh from talks with US and British officials in London on the violence wracking his country, flew into Benghazi briefly where he met security officials.

Last week the US military said it hopes to train 5,000 to 8,000 Libyan army troops, responding to a request by Zeidan.

On Sunday Zeidan met in London with US Secretary of State John Kerry and his British counterpart William Hague and after the talks the US top diplomat vowed to help stabilise Libya.

The Benghazi violence comes as the authorities take steps to evacuate militias from Tripoli, on the back of popular discontent in the capital against armed groups.

On November 15, 46 people were killed and more than 500 wounded in Tripoli after militiamen opened fire on peaceful demonstrators calling for them to leave the city.

Those demonstrations took place also following calls by the city council on residents to rebel against the militias, and there is fear of similar violence hitting Benghazi.

Ansar Al-Sharia advocates the implementation of sharia Islamic law and has systematically refused to recognise the authority of the central government or its security services.

The group controls areas of Benghazi as well as Sirte and Derna, also in eastern Libya, and has been blamed for waves of bloody attacks against foreign missions, judges and security personnel.

The most daring attack in September 2012 targeted the US consulate in Benghazi, killing ambassador Chris Steven and three other Americans. Ansar al-Sharia denies any involvement.

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