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Fighting in Benghazi leaves 36 dead, Libyan officials say

By Jomana Karadsheh, CNN
May 17, 2014 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A flight ban over Benghazi is announced
  • The city appears calm a day after a spasm of violence
  • At least 139 people wounded, Health Ministry says
  • Libya has been struggling to deal with violence since Moammar Gadhafi's ouster

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- At least three dozen people were killed and scores were injured in fighting that flared up Friday in and around the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, the government said.

A count from six hospitals totaled at least 36 dead and 139 wounded, a Health Ministry official said at a news conference Saturday. The situation in the city appeared calm so far on Saturday, according to residents, and no fighting had been reported.

A retired military general led Libyan troops and other forces loyal to him in a deadly attack Friday against Islamist militants in and around Benghazi, Libyan media reported. The government disavowed the action.

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Retired Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who participated in the 2011 rebellion that ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi, launched the attack that supporters said was an attempt to clear the city of extremist groups, CNN affiliate Libya Awalan TV reported.

Meanwhile, the spokesman for Haftar's military force made a televised statement calling on residents in three neighborhoods to evacuate, raising concerns about renewed fighting.

"An urgent call to our people residing in al-Quwarsha, Sidi Faraj and al-Hawari, to evacuate their homes and neighborhoods to preserve their lives and for their safety" said Col. Mohammed Hijjazi, the spokesman for Haftar's self-declared Libyan National Army.

It was not immediately clear whether residents were evacuating.

Flight ban announced

According to the Libyan state news agency LANA, The office of the Army chief of staff announced in a statement on Saturday a flight ban over Benghazi until further notice.

The statement warned that any military aircraft flying over Benghazi will be targeted by army units, security forces and revolutionary forces under its command. The revolutionary forces phrase is a term the government uses to describe state-sanctioned militias.

The statement came after residents on Friday reported that aircraft, including helicopters, took part in Haftar's assault, striking some militia bases.

The prime minister said that at least one air force jet was used in the attack without government orders.

Late on Friday, LANA quoted sources in Benghazi as saying at least one member of the jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia was killed on Friday when an aircraft struck the group's base in the city.

International carriers including Tunisair, Royal Jordanian and EgyptAir canceled their flights to Benghazi on Saturday after authorities announced closing the airport on Friday night.

The director of Benghazi's Benina International Airport, Ibrahim al-Farkash, told Libyan Television that authorities decided to close the airport as of 8 p.m. Friday as a "precautionary measure."

He said the closure was for the safety of passengers and the airport, adding that the airport road was not safe, either.

Awash in armed groups

Residents and officials have blamed the violence that has gripped Benghazi on militant groups, including Ansar al Sharia.

The United States designated that group a terrorist organization this year, and has accused it of being involved in the 2012 attack that killed four Americans -- including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens -- at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.

Official Libyan security forces have struggled to deal with hostile militias, so the government has relied on other militias, many on the state's payroll, in an attempt to enhance security.

But various other political forces also have relied on militias, leaving the country awash in armed groups -- many who refused to disband after the revolution -- with competing agendas and loyalties.

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