At least five soldiers were killed in clashes between Libyan special forces and armed protesters outside a special forces’ base in the eastern city of Benghazi, a military official said yesterday.
Residents in the area said heavy gunfire and explosions were heard during the fighting and hours earlier a group of men had forced their way into a different army compound to steal weapons.
“The clashes lasted from 2am until 6am, but are over now,” Libyan Colonel Mohammed Sharif of the special forces told reporters.
It was not immediately clear who the protesters were and if any had been killed.
Explosions and heavy gunfire could be heard at about 4am near the headquarters of the special forces and in al-Lithi District on the road to the airport, not far from the city center, a foreign journalist and witnesses reported.
The special forces said on Facebook that its members exchanged light arms and rocket fire with an “outlaw” group.
They reported three of its members were shot dead and two wounded as they “were defending the legitimacy of the state with courage and honor.”
Then soon after they announced two soldiers had been “liquidated” by “the takfir group,” in a clear reference to Islamist extremists.
The special forces warned that “they would target anyone who shot at them.”
The latest clashes came just hours after dozens of protesters forced a brigade of former rebel fighters from their base in Benghazi on Friday evening.
The protesters had burned two vehicles belonging to the First Infantry Brigade, before moving on the barracks, a Libyan officer said.
The brigade was forced to quit its headquarters as the protesters took it over.
A witness on site said the protesters, some of whom were armed, had fired in the air and launched a rocket-propelled grenade at an external wall of the barracks, though nobody was hurt.
The protesters later attacked a police station, the offices of border guards and facilities and another office building of the First Infantry Brigade, witnesses said.
Salem al-Konidi, the interim leader of the National Libyan Army, warned of the danger of a “bloodbath” as the unrest in Benghazi flared again.
He said he did not know who had launched the attack or what their motive was, but appealed to elders and dignitaries to act to try to head off the unrest.
Al-Konidi replaced General Yusef al-Mangoush, who resigned on Sunday last week, a day after at least 31 people were killed and 100 injured in clashes between armed protesters, eventually backed by special forces, and a militia group in the city.
The protesters had been demanding the disbanding of militias and clashed with members of the Shield of Libya brigade.
Al-Mangoush had come under mounting criticism for having failed to form a national army in the face of resistance from militias unwilling to surrender their independence.
Benghazi, the cradle of the uprising that ousted Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, has become increasingly marred by clashes between militias made up of former rebels who fought the late leader’s forces and the still infant regular forces of the new authorities.
Militias with different tribal and ideological links now control parts of Benghazi, where there has been a wave of attacks on army and police officers and facilities.