Shops and schools closed across Benghazi Tuesday as residents of Libya’s second city responded to calls for civil disobedience to protest deadly clashes between radical Islamists and the army.
The call by the city council came as a source said defence ministry officials were in talks with jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia on an offer of safe passage out of the city on condition its fighters leave their weapons behind.
The army clashed with jihadists on Monday 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.
On Tuesday, the army deployed across the eastern city, taking control of key roads, an AFP correspondent reported.
Troops were also in control of the Ansar al-Sharia headquarters in the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, which residents had attacked late Monday, forcing jihadists to flee, before handing it over to the army.
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 former 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, or make them surrender their weapons.
Fed up by the government’s inability to rein in the gunmen, the city council called on residents to show their frustration through three days of “civil disobedience”, including strikes.
The move brought Benghazi to a near standstill with schools, universities, shops, banks and public offices all closed, as residents mourned the dead.
Earlier this month, residents of the capital Tripoli observed a similar campaign of protests against militias in response to deadly violence, prompting some of them to pull out of the city.
Jihadists seek ‘safe’ exit
Defence Minister Abdallah al-Teni said his ministry was in touch with Ansar al-Sharia to find a solution that would avoid further bloodshed.
Ansar al-Sharia is requesting a “safe corridor” for its fighters to leave Benghazi but army chiefs are demanding they leave behind their heavy weapons, the minister said, according the spokesman of Libya’s top political body, the General National Congress.
A GNC delegation also arrived in Benghazi on Tuesday at the request of the city council.
Late on 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 for meetings with security officials.
Last week, the US military said it hopes to train 5,000 to 8,000 troops for the fledgling new army, following a request from Zeidan.
Zeidan met both US Secretary of State John Kerry and Britain’s William Hague in London on Sunday 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.
Less than two weeks ago, 46 people were killed and more than 500 wounded after militiamen opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in Tripoli prompting armed clashes.
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 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 Stevens and three other Americans. Ansar al-Sharia denies any involvement.