At least 79 people have been killed and 141 wounded in fierce clashes in eastern Libya between armed groups loyal to an ex-general and Islamist militias, a Libyan Ministry of Health official said on Saturday.
The Libyan government accused the “outlaw” retired general, Khalifa Haftar, and his irregular forces of trying to carry out a coup as they fight to crush militants in the restive eastern city of Benghazi.
Haftar, who led ground forces in the 2011 uprising that toppled former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, used warplanes and helicopters on Friday to support an offensive in pitched battles.
Giving the latest toll of Friday’s unrest in Benghazi, health ministry official Abdallah al-Fitouri said those wounded had been taken to five hospitals in the area.
An earlier toll had 37 dead and 139 wounded.
Reacting to his vow to continue fighting until Benghazi is “purged of terrorists,” the Libyan Army announced a no-fly zone over the port city and suburbs, vowing to shoot down any aircraft that defies the ban.
The government, parliament and army charged that Haftar’s operation was tantamount to a coup against the central authorities.
It is “an action outside state legitimacy and a coup d’etat,” said a joint statement read on state television by Nuri Abu Sahmein, the head of the Libyan General National Congress.
“All those who took part in this coup bid will be prosecuted,” said Abu Sahmein, flanked by recently appointed Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani and Libyan Armed Forces Chief of Staff Abdessalam Jadallah al-Salihin.
Haftar denied the accusations.
“Our operation is not a coup and we do not plan to seize power,” he told reporters. “This operation has a precise goal, which is the eradication of terrorism” in Libya.
Haftar, who sees himself as the chief of the “national armed forces” and who has the support of rogue officers and army units, as well as warplanes and helicopter gunships, seemed to act on his own accord.
Haftar’s threat to purge Benghazi of the “terrorists” is an affront to the authorities, who have struggled to stomp out lawlessness in the North African nation, which is effectively ruled by a patchwork of former rebels. Once seen as heroes, ex-rebels, particularly Islamists, have been blamed for attacks that have killed dozens of members of security forces, judges and foreigners in Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 revolt.
Meanwhile, a tentative calm was shattered when a war plane bombed an Islamist position in the northwest of the city, an ex-rebel said.
“We fired at the plane, which missed its target,” the source said, adding that there were no casualties.
It was not immediately clear who carried out the raid, which came after Haftar spokesman Colonel Mohammed Hijazi advised residents in western and southern districts of Benghazi to evacuate their homes.
Earlier this year, Haftar caused a stir when he announced an “initiative” aimed at suspending the interim government and parliament.
That sparked concern on social media that a coup might be in the offing, but the government was quick to quash them and insist it was in control.
The army says Haftar is backed by tribes, army defectors and ex-rebels who are opposed to the central government.
The army’s high command declared all of Benghazi and its suburbs a “no-fly zone until further notice,” state-run LANA news agency said.