Libyan army liberates Benina town

imgSitting in one of the last buildings still intact after months of fighting near Benghazi’s airport, Libyan army special forces commander Wanis Bukhamada presides over a world of destruction.

His forces managed to stop an offensive of Islamist armed groups trying to take the airport in Benina, some 25km south of the eastern city – just one battle in wider chaos gripping the major oil producer three years after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

“We’ve liberated Benina,” Bukhamada said, working from a farm-turned-office equipped with a fax machine and Thuraya satellite phone.

The Benghazi clashes involving warplanes, tanks and artillery were among the worst since 2011. The violence has reinforced Western fears that Libya may be sliding into civil war as rival former rebel groups who helped topple Gaddafi use their heavy weaponry to carve out fiefdoms.

One armed faction with ties to the western city of Misrata took over the capital Tripoli after forcing out rival armed groups. It has since set up an alternative government, while the country’s elected legislature and the internationally recognised administration is holed up in the eastern city of Tobruk.

The battle for Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, and its surroundings runs parallel to the Tripoli conflict. A chaotic struggle for control of the city after special forces were driven out has for months pitted government forces and irregular units against a coalition of Islamist brigades.

The regular army, like other Libyan institutions too weak to control rival armed factions, has now teamed up in Benghazi with forces of former general Khalifa Haftar, an ex-Gaddafi general who started his own campaign against Islamists in May.

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