Jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia on Monday attacked Libyan special
forces in the eastern city of Benghazi, sparking a battle in which
nine people were killed and dozens wounded, officials said.
Military governor Colonel Abdullah al-Saidi declared a "state of
alert" and ordered all soldiers to report for duty at their barracks,
in what was the first such confrontation between the army and Libya's
heavily-armed top jihadist group.
As the government warned that the army was a "red line" not to be
crossed, Interior Minister Seddik Abdelkarim announced in Tripoli a
casualty toll of nine dead and 49 wounded.
Medics in Benghazi's Al-Jala hospital earlier reported five soldiers
killed and 29 people wounded, including 10 civilians.
The number of casualties on the jihadists' side was not immediately
known as they were being treated in a clinic run by Ansar al-Islam.
"A violent clash has been taking place for several hours between our
forces and an Ansar al-Sharia cell," Colonel Milud al-Zwei, spokesman
for Libya's special forces, told AFP.
According to Zwei, the fighting broke out after a special forces
patrol near the group's headquarters came under attack.
"The army retaliated, sparking clashes with all types of weapons," he said.
The spokesman said fighting between the two sides spread to other
districts of Benghazi, especially near the group's charity clinic in
the Selmani area.
Explosions and gunfire could be heard in several neighbourhoods, an
AFP journalist said.
Witnesses said gunmen had set up checkpoints on roads leading into
Benghazi to prevent reinforcements reaching the Islamists.
But a relative calm was restored in the early afternoon.
Ansar Al-Sharia emerged after the 2011 fall of Moamer Kadhafi's
regime, with its military wing composed of former rebel fighters.
Blamed for the murders of judges and security personnel in Benghazi,
it is also suspected of responsibility for a September 2012 attack in
which the US ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
It denies any involvement.
Ansar al-Sharia, which demands implementation of sharia Islamic laws
as the sole source of legislation, controls areas of Benghazi as well
as Sirte and Derna, also in eastern Libya.
Libyan and foreign analysts say Islamist groups are held responsible
for much of the violence in eastern Libya but that the government has
been loathe to take on the heavily-armed groups for fear of reprisal.
Ansar al-Sharia itself has said it does not recognise state
institutions or its security forces, even as the government struggles
to integrate former rebel fighters into a regular army and police