Gunman attacked the city’s Special Forces headquarters and other security buildings in this increasingly restive city Saturday in what some residents suspected was a retaliatory response to an assault a week ago that killed 32 and shut down the nation’s largest militia.
The latest attack fueled concerns of a further deteriorating security situation in this already volatile city, Libya’s second largest. The interim head of the Libyan army, Salem al-Konidi warned of a potential “bloodbath” that could emerge here.
The attacks began around 3 a.m. local time when gunfire could be heard outside places such as the nation’s Army Special Forces headquarters. The mob then moved to a police building and at least three other security outposts, before fighting ended around 6 a.m. According to estimates by one Special Forces official, five soldiers and four gunmen were killed and another four people were injured.
Suspicion fell on members of the Libyan Shields, a militia group set up and funded by the government to buttress the nation’s nascent government forces.
A spokesman for the Shields, Ahmad al Jaziwi, told McClatchy his forces were not involved. “The Army got involved in a fight with civilians,” al Jaziwi said.
By morning, army troops riding camouflaged pickup trucks with machine guns affixed to them could be seen patrolling the streets of the city, the birth place of the 2011 revolution that led to the ousting and public killing of the nation’s former leader, Moammar Gadhafi.
Since Gadhafi’s fall, this once beatnik city has increasingly become Islamist, secured by heavily-armed forces aligned with them that at times hold the city hostage to demands for a more conservative Libya, often by kidnapping opponents. They man checkpoints, for example, to tell drivers they should not consume alcohol.
Islamist attackers also are suspected in the Sept. 11 attack here that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, along with three other Americans. No one has yet been charged in that attack.
A week ago, residents staged a protest outside the Libyan Shield headquarters to speak out against their control over the city here. But that quickly turned into a firefight between the armed militiamen inside and the Army forces that responded to the hours long attack.
Civilian and army forces then stormed the Libyan Shield headquarters, taking their ammunition, destroying their military vehicles and burning the multi-building complex. At least 32 people were killed. The city had just finished burying the dead when Saturday’s attack began.
In Tripoli earlier this week, the head of the Army, Youssef al-Mangoush, who supported the militias, was forced to resign. The government said that the Libyan Shields would be disbanded and incorporated into the official Army by the end of the year.
Up until Saturday’s attack, military officials said they would welcome qualified former Shield members into their forces. But the latest attack, in which at least one outpost was burnt, may have changed that. “It is a mistake by the Libyan government to pay them,” Army Col. Hamad bin Khais, head of the 1st Brigade in charge of Benghazi told McClatchy just two days before Saturday’s attack. “But we will welcome them, if not as police, then as a soldier in one of the ministries.”
It appeared the city would endure further instability as the militias and the government forces fight for control of the city. Saturday’s attack, near the city’s airport, delayed flights for three hours and created a tense atmosphere as residents stood around the Special Forces headquarters assessing the damage.
In Tripoli, al-Konidi said that if government forces are targeted, “there could be a catastrophe for Benghazi.”
(Special correspondent Dawood Idrees contributed from Benghazi.)