Libya violence: Clashes at Benghazi port area

Armed civilians load a heavy machine gun with bullets during clashes with Islamist militiamen in Benghazi November 2014 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Civilians in Benghazi have armed themselves and joined in the fight against Islamist militias

Fierce fighting has erupted in the Libyan city of Benghazi, as the army attempts to retake the area from Islamist militias.

Smoke could be seen rising from Benghazi's port, where a ship was hit.

The army had asked residents in the central al-Sabri district to evacuate the area by noon on Monday (10:00 GMT) ahead of a major military operation.

More than 200 people have been killed in Benghazi since the army began its offensive last month.

Libya has been in a state of flux since Colonel Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011.

The country is divided between two rival governments, with disparate tribes, militias and political factions fighting for power in the oil-rich country.

Heavy fighting broke out in the port area on Monday afternoon, with reports of tanks and artillery being deployed by the military.

Army spokesman Mohammed Hegazi told the Associated Press news agency that Islamist militias had hit an oil tanker with a rocket-propelled grenade, causing it to catch fire.

However, eyewitnesses said it was a navy ship that was hit amid the fighting.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Pro-government forces have been battling Islamist militias in Benghazi for weeks

Dozens of residents had left the city to avoid the fighting.

However, many residents have nowhere to go or are too afraid to cross to another area for fear of getting caught in the crossfire, the BBC's Rana Jawad reports from the capital Tripoli.

Residents in Benghazi told the BBC many homes had been destroyed from the violence in recent weeks.

Troops backing former general Khalifa Haftar are also supporting the military's efforts to retake the city.

Political crisis

The internationally recognised and newly elected government has been forced to flee to the far-eastern city of Tobruk close to the Egyptian border, having been ousted from Tripoli after hostile militias took control of the capital in July.

Islamist groups including Ansar al-Sharia, which is listed by Western countries including the US as a terrorist organisation, have declared a caliphate in the coastal city of Derna.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Libya has been deeply divided since the ousting of Colonel Gaddafi

The elected government has lost Libya's three main cities amid the political crisis:

  • In Tripoli, some members of the old parliament - the General National Congress - have continued to sit. They have appointed their own rival government, though this is not internationally recognised
  • Much of Benghazi, the second city and headquarters of the 2011 Revolution, is in the hands of Islamist fighters, some with links to al-Qaeda. There are near-daily assassinations of officials, journalists and social activists
  • Misrata, the third city and a major business port, is also loyal to the Tripoli authorities.

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