Ansar Sharia drags Libya army into ‘war of attrition’
BENGHAZI - Three soldiers were shot dead in Libya's second city Benghazi on Wednesday and the bodies of two more were found in the nearby eastern town of Derna, officials said.
The latest violence came as Benghazi was on a three-day strike to protest against the country's unruly militias after a shootout on Monday between a jihadist group and the army left seven people dead and another 50 wounded.
"Al-Jala hospital received the remains of three soldiers shot dead in separate attacks," hospital spokeswoman Fadia al-Barghathi said, adding that a fourth soldier had been hospitalised.
The bodies of two more soldiers were found in the eastern town of Derna on Tuesday, a local official said.
Libyan forces guarding Benghazi's Al-Jala hospital came under fire overnight, but no one was wounded, and the assailants fled after a Special Forces unit returned fire, a security official said.
The city council declared the three-day strike after an army patrol came under attack near the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia, a jihadist group blamed for the 2012 attack on a US mission in which the ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
Schools, universities and banks in Benghazi were still closed on Wednesday, but only around half the city's shops remained shuttered, according to a correspondent.
On Tuesday, the army deployed across the eastern city, taking control of key roads, a correspondent reported.
Troops were also in control of the Ansar al-Sharia headquarters in the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, which residents had attacked late Monday, forcing jihadists to flee, before handing it over to the army.
Benghazi was the cradle of the 2011 uprising during which NATO-backed rebels toppled and then killed Moamer Gathafi.
Since the end of the uprising, Libya has been hit by waves of deadly violence much of it blamed on heavily armed former rebels who have banded into militias each with its own ideology and allegiance.
The government has been struggling to integrate the former rebels into a regular army and police, or make them surrender their weapons.
Fed up by the government's inability to rein in the gunmen, the city council called on residents to show their frustration through three days of "civil disobedience", including strikes.
Earlier this month, residents of the capital Tripoli observed a similar campaign of protests against militias in response to deadly violence, prompting some of them to pull out of the city.
Defence Minister Abdallah al-Teni said his ministry was in touch with Ansar al-Sharia to find a solution that would avoid further bloodshed.
Ansar al-Sharia is requesting a "safe corridor" for its fighters to leave Benghazi but army chiefs are demanding they leave behind their heavy weapons, the minister said, according the spokesman of Libya's top political body, the General National Congress.
A GNC delegation also arrived in Benghazi on Tuesday at the request of the city council.
Late on Monday Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, fresh from talks with US and British officials in London on the violence wracking his country, flew into Benghazi briefly for meetings with security officials.
Last week, the US military said it hopes to train 5,000 to 8,000 troops for the fledgling new army, following a request from Zeidan.
Zeidan met both US Secretary of State John Kerry and Britain's William Hague in London on Sunday and after the talks the US top diplomat vowed to help stabilise Libya.
The Benghazi violence comes as the authorities take steps to evacuate militias from Tripoli, on the back of popular discontent in the capital against armed groups.
Less than two weeks ago, 46 people were killed and more than 500 wounded after militiamen opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in Tripoli prompting armed clashes.
Ansar Al-Sharia advocates the implementation of sharia Islamic law and has systematically refused to recognise the authority of the central government or its security services.
The group controls areas of Benghazi as well as Sirte and Derna, also in eastern Libya, and has been blamed for bloody attacks against foreign missions, judges and security personnel.
The most daring attack, in September 2012, targeted the US consulate in Benghazi, killing ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Ansar al-Sharia denies any involvement.