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Death toll hits 79 in Libyan armed clashes

By Agence France-Presse in Benghazi, Libya (China Daily) Updated: 2014-05-19 08:32

At least 79 people have been killed and 141 others wounded in fierce clashes in eastern Libya between armed groups loyal to a rogue ex-general and Islamist militias, a Health Ministry official said on Saturday.

Libya's government accused the "outlaw" retired general, Khalifa Haftar, and his irregular forces of trying to carry out a coup as they fight to crush militants in the restive eastern city of Benghazi.

Haftar, who led ground forces in the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gadhafi, used warplanes and helicopters on Friday to support an offensive in pitched battles.

Reacting to his vow to continue fighting until Benghazi is "purged of terrorists", the army announced a no-fly zone over the port city and suburbs, vowing to shoot down any aircraft that defies the ban.

The government, legislature and army charged that Haftar's operation was tantamount to a coup against the central authorities.

It is "an action outside state legitimacy and a coup d'etat", said a joint statement read on state television by Nuri Abu Sahmein, the head of the General National Congress.

"All those who took part in this coup bid will be prosecuted," said Abu Sahmein, flanked by recently appointed Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani and armed forces chief of staff Abdessalam Jadallah al-Salihin.

Haftar denied the accusations against him.

"Our operation is not a coup and we do not plan to seize power," he told reporters. "This operation has a precise goal, which is the eradication of terrorism" in Libya.

Haftar, who sees himself as the chief of the "national armed forces" and has the support of rogue officers and army units as well as warplanes and helicopter gunships, seemed to act on his own accord.

Haftar's threat to purge Benghazi of the "terrorists" is an affront to the authorities, who have struggled to stomp out lawlessness in the North African nation, which is awash with weapons and effectively ruled by a patchwork of former rebels.

Once seen as heroes, ex-rebels, particularly Islamists, have been blamed for attacks that have killed dozens of members of security forces, judges and foreigners in Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 revolt.

On Saturday, Haftar's spokesman Colonel Mohammad Hijazi advised residents in western and southern districts of Benghazi to evacuate their homes before fresh attacks were launched on Islamist militant targets.

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