CAIRO — Islamic hard-line militias claimed to have taken control of Libya's second largest city, Benghazi, after defeating army units, taking over military barracks and seizing tanks, rockets and hundreds of boxes of ammunition, as deadly clashes continue in the western edge of the country in the capital between rival militias, promoting a wave of evacuation by foreign nationals, diplomats and Libyans.
The extent of the militias' control of the city was not clear. On Thursday, the city's streets were nearly empty, with residents staying indoors and shops closed — but with also no sign of checkpoints by either militiamen or security forces. The main police headquarters was still smoldering after it was hit by militia shelling a day earlier, and smoke rose from the barracks of the Special Forces, once the strongest security body in the city until it was overrun by militiamen.
The militia victories in the city are part of a powerful backlash by Islamist forces in Libya after setbacks earlier this year. The militiamen's sweep through Benghazi was also a heavy reversal for Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a renegade general who for months had led army units and other fighters in a self-declared campaign aimed at stamping out armed Islamic militant groups. After forces loyal to him lost their bases inside Benghazi the past days, his loyalists now appeared to only hold the airport on the city's edges.
The armed groups that overran the city belong to a newly-formed umbrella group called Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, made up of multiple armed factions led by Islamic extremist commanders. Among the factions is Ansar al-Shariah, the group accused by the United States of leading a Sept. 11, 2012 attack on a diplomatic facility in the city that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
"We are the only force on the ground in Benghazi," a commander of one of the coalition's factions told The Associated Press on Thursday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. He said the coalition's fighters had driven all army forces and fighters loyal to Hifter out the city.
In a video put out by Thursday by Ansar al-Shariah, its commander Mohammed al-Zahawi congratulates his followers on "this victory and conquest." He was shown standing in front of a tank inside the base of the Special Forces. Another militia commander, Wissam bin Hamid, was also shown in the camp in the video, proclaiming in front of his masked fighters, "We will not stop until we establish the rule of God." The video conformed with the AP's reporting from the city.
The surge is a blow to efforts to end the power of militias in Benghazi. After the fall of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in the 2011 civil war, militias emerged as the strongest power in the city, setting up barracks and bases packed with weaponry and taking over security powers. All of them were on government payroll since central authorities depended on them to maintain order. But after the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission, Benghazi protesters chased out Ansar al-Shariah and other militias in demonstrations that saw bloody attacks by militiamen..
The Special Forces, one of the few elite government forces, deployed in the city. For months, it has been clashing with Islamic militias accused in an increasing wave of unrest, bombings and assassinations.
Earlier this year, Hifter announced his own campaign to crush extremists, calling it the "Dignity Operation." Multiple army units and some militias declared they were joining him in the campaign, and his forces attacked Islamic militia positions around Benghazi.
In retaliation, extremist-led militias formed the Shura Council in June, vowing to "cleanse the city" of Hifter and his allies for the sake of establishment of an Islamic rule. The group was formed after U.S. special forces snatched a top hard-line commander, Ahmed Abu-Khatala, accused of involvement in the attack on the Americans.
Since then, the group has been making advances in fighting with army units and Hifter's forces, first capturing the city's seaport and one of the main hospitals. On July 14, the coalition said it took over a Benghazi army barrack that is one of the biggest in eastern Libya, called Barracks 319. Over the past week, more than five other barracks fell under their control, including the Special Forces camp.
"We will not stop until we uproot the latest person of the 'No-Dignity' and topple down their walls," the coalition said in a statement Monday, deriding the name of Hifter's campaign.