At least 13 Libyan soldiers were killed and more than 70 wounded Thursday in car bombings and clashes with Islamists around the airport in the restive eastern city of Benghazi, military sources said.
Two car bombs targeted an army convoy, killing three soldiers, while at least 10 others died in fighting with Islamist militiamen who control most of the city, they said.
A spokesman for the army’s special forces said 70 wounded soldiers were taken to hospital in Al-Marj, 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Benghazi.
At the same time, a source at Benghazi’s Al-Hawari hospital said 23 wounded Islamists had been admitted there, some of them in critical condition.
On Wednesday, militiamen of the Shura Revolutionary Council, which includes Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, launched a fresh assault on the airport, which has both civilian and military airfields.
The airport is the last remaining bastion in Benghazi of forces of former general Khalifa Haftar, who launched a military campaign against the Islamists in May.
General Sagr al-Jerushi, an aide to Haftar, said warplanes and helicopters were being used to repulse the Islamists’ advance on the airport.
The Islamists, who evicted Haftar’s forces from their main bases in Benghazi at the end of July, killing dozens of soldiers, have targeted the airport for the past month.
Libya has been sliding into chaos since longtime leader Moamer Kadhafi was toppled in a NATO-backed uprising three years ago, with interim authorities confronted by powerful militias that fought to oust him.
Benghazi, the cradle of the uprising, is the regular scene not only of fighting but also the murder of members of the security forces, political activists and journalists.
A health ministry official said 79 people were killed in Benghazi in September. Human Rights Watch said more than 250 have lost their lives there and in Derna, another Islamist stronghold further east, since the beginning of the year.