Dozens of soldiers trying to defend an airport in Libya’s second city were killed and scores wounded in bombings and clashes with Islamists, the army said Friday as the UN threatened sanctions.
Libya has been sliding into chaos since longtime leader Moamer Kadhafi was toppled in an uprising three years ago, with interim authorities confronted by powerful militias that fought to oust him.
The troops killed on Thursday in fighting around Benghazi airport were loyal to a prominent former general, Khalifa Haftar, who launched a military campaign against Islamist militia in May.
Thirty-six soldiers died and more than 70 were wounded in three car bomb attacks as well as clashes between the army and Islamists, a military spokesman told AFP.
Two car bombs exploded when an army convoy travelled close to the airport, killing three soldiers, the spokesman said. A third bomb also hit nearby later on.
The blasts were followed by fierce fighting in the Benina neighbourhood that gives its name to the airport.
Forces loyal to Haftar said they had pushed back Islamist fighters who launched the assault, adding that the attackers had suffered “heavy losses” in personnel and equipment.
Libya’s parliament, which was elected in June, is recognised by the international community but contested by militia controlling the capital Tripoli and by Islamists holding much of the eastern city of Benghazi.
The cradle of the uprising against Kadhafi, Benghazi is now the regular scene not only of fighting but also the murders of members of the security forces, political activists and journalists.
The Islamists have since September sought to seize control of Benghazi airport — the last remaining bastion in the city of forces loyal to former general Haftar.
Pro-Haftar forces have been pushed out of the city, settling into positions outside Benghazi and occasionally launching airstrikes on Islamist targets.
Haftar’s troops clash with Islamist militia in the eastern city nearly every day, although it is rare for either side to announce casualties.
– UN ‘ready’ for sanctions –
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.
Washington has branded Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organisation.
In New York, the UN Security Council on Thursday warned of possible sanctions against those who reject peace in Libya.
In a unanimous statement, the 15 members of the council “expressed their readiness to use targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, against individuals or entities that threatened Libya’s peace and stability or undermined its political transition”.
The move is apparently aimed at shoring up UN-brokered talks on ending the violence.
A first round of talks were held on September 29, but the militia controlling Tripoli and jihadists in Benghazi have rejected the peace initiative.
Another round of talks is scheduled for next week. UN mission chief Bernardino Leon had described the last round of discussions, attended by representatives from Britain and Malta, as “positive” and “constructive”.
Libya’s highest religious authority, the Dar al-Ifta, also called for the “suspension” of the talks, and warned of the “dangerous decisions” of the new parliament.
Other critics of the internationally recognised parliament and its government have accused the bodies of working with Haftar.
One pro-Islamist lawmaker who is boycotting parliament said on television this week that “the parliament and the government meet under the protection of the putschists. They have lost all legitimacy”.
The soldiers wounded in Thursday’s violence have been 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.
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.