Egypt bombing Libyan militias
Cairo – Egyptian military aircraft are bombing positions held by Islamist militias in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi as part of a large-scale operation to rid the city of militants who have held sway there for months, two Egyptian government officials said on Wednesday.
The officials, who have first-hand knowledge of the operation, said the use of the aircraft was part of an Egyptian-led operation against the militiamen that would at a later stage involve Libyan ground troops recently trained by Egyptian forces.
The operation, they said, had been requested by the internationally recognised Libyan administration based in the eastern city of Tobruk. That elected administration was thrown out of the capital, Tripoli, by rival militias allied with Islamic political factions.
The officials said the operation also involves the use of an Egyptian navy vessel as a command centre off the Mediterranean shore of Tobruk. Renegade Libyan general, Khalifa Hiftar, is not leading the operation, with Egypt dealing directly with a newly appointed Libyan chief of staff, who has visited Egypt several times in recent weeks.
In a televised statement on Tuesday, Hifter, who was an army chief under Gadhafi before joining his opponents decades ago, said that he will resign and transfer power to a young army leadership.
Tobruk-based Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni told Dubai-based Sky News Arabia that all troops involved in the battles in Benghazi are under the command of the new chief of staff and are instructed to restore state institutions and combat terrorism.
“After the appointment of the chief of staff for the Libyan army, all military operations are under the umbrella of the state and its military leadership,” he said.
The operation was expected to last three to six months, said the officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.
Libyan lawmaker Tareq al-Jorushi confirmed to the AP that Egyptian aircraft were taking part in the ongoing operation in Benghazi, but said that they were being flown by Libyan pilots. He says the planes were “rented” by the Libyan administration from Egypt.
Al-Jorushi is also a member of the national security committee in the Tobruk-based parliament.
Libya has been mired in turmoil since the ouster of long serving ruler Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, with militias operating with impunity and the government unable to rein them in.
In recent months, the militias in Tripoli and Benghazi swept through the two coastal cities, defeating anti-Islamist forces, setting up their own government and reviving an old parliament.
Egypt, which has publicly stated its support of the elected administration based in Tobruk, views the presence of hard-line extremists near its western border as a direct national security threat. It had made no secret of its willingness to offer military support to the Tobruk-based government, saying it would train and arm its forces.
Egypt’s direct military involvement, however, reinforces the notion that Libya has become a proxy battleground for larger regional struggles, with Turkey and Qatar backing the Islamist militias while Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab emirates are supporting their opponents.
Earlier on Wednesday, a top Islamic militia commander based in Benghazi accused the Egyptian government of sending aircraft to hit his group’s positions.
“We have photographs of the Egyptian aircraft and Egyptian naval forces stationed in eastern cities,” he told the AP. He said the planes were taking off from an airport in Libya’s eastern city of Bayda.
“The Egyptians are bombing us day and night and only want to seed divisions among us here so people point guns at each other,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
US officials confirmed in the summer that Egyptian and UAE aircraft bombed militias’ position in and near Tripoli.
Egypt denied involvement, while the UAE said nothing publicly.
Al-Thinni met Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during his last visit to Egypt on 9 Oct. During the visit, Egyptian Defence Minister General Sedki Sobhi said that Egypt is ready to offer “all support” to the Libyan army, especially in “combating terrorism.”
In an official statement posted on Egypt’s state-run news agency however, presidential spokesperson Alaa Youssef denied that Egyptian planes were striking targets in Libya.
Wednesday’s airstrikes preluded what many believe to be a concerted push against the Benghazi militias, and Hifter has described the fighting as a “turning point” in the war against the Islamists.
Residents contacted by telephone said they saw warplanes striking camps of several Islamist militias fighting under an umbrella group called the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries.
Armed men have set up checkpoints and cordoned off their neighbourhoods to prevent militias from using their districts as staging ground for attacks army forces, they added, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
As night fell, there were conflicting reports over who controlled several military barracks after fighting in Benghazi.
An Islamist militia commander said that his group’s forces took over army barracks housing tanks and a second commander said that three people have been killed in the fighting so far, without saying which side had suffered the losses.
He says the takeover of the barracks came after an Islamist suicide bomber blew himself up at the camp gates. The commanders also spoke anonymously because they were not authorised to speak to the press.
A Benghazi hospital official said that the death toll had reached nine, mostly civilians.
A security official allied to Hifter denied the claim, saying that the general’s troops “liberated” one of the barracks controlled by “extremists,” killing a leading member of the Ansar al-Shariah militia.
Ansar al-Shariah was implicated in the deadly assault on US Consulate in Benghazi in 2012 which left four Americans dead, including the ambassador.
“I am in the street right now, with my colleagues, and Hifter’s forces are deployed to the centre and engaged in fierce clashes,” said the official, who is a member of Benghazi’s official security body. He and the hospital official also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.