Hard-line Islamist militias claimed to have taken control of Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi, after defeating army units, taking over military barracks and seizing tanks, rockets and hundreds of boxes of ammunition.
In the capital Tripoli, escalating battles Thursday between militias prompted multiple foreign governments to scramble to get out their citizens as thousands of Libyans fled across the border into Tunisia.
The Health Ministry said in a statement Thursday that the death toll in Tripoli since violence intensified the past month reached 214, with more than 981 people wounded.
Militias allied to Islamist politicians have been fighting for weeks to wrest control of Tripoli’s airport from rival militias, destroying much of the airport in the process. Witnesses said that random rocket fire hit houses and vehicles in western Tripoli Thursday, sending residents fleeing. Shelling hit a funeral in a southern district, killing four children and three women from a single family, security officials said on condition of anonymity.
By noon, more than 10,000 Libyans fled by land across the border into neighboring Tunisia over the previous 12 hours, Tunisia’s state news agency reported.
They joined thousands of other Libyans who have already streamed into Tunisia in recent days.
Spain announced it was pulling its ambassador and most embassy staff out of Tripoli. China has chartered a Greek vessel to evacuate hundreds of Chinese citizens, and the Philippines is working to get out some 13,000 Filipino workers inside Libya.
The militias’ moves in both Tripoli and Benghazi reflect an attempt to “rearrange the equilibrium,” said Frederic Wehrey, an analyst from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
It was prompted by two factors, he said. One was June parliament elections, in which Islamist political factions are believed to have lost their dominance over parliament.
The other factor was an offensive launched earlier this year by a renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, who vowed to crush hard-line Islamist factions. His forces have been attacking hard-line militias in Benghazi.
Islamist militias in Benghazi responded in June by forming an umbrella group called Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, made up of multiple armed factions led by extremist commanders. Among the factions is Ansar al-Shariah, accused by the U.S. of leading a 2012 attack in the city that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.
For weeks, the coalition has been battling back. The past week, the coalition’s fighters overran five major army barracks, most importantly including the barracks of the Special Forces, the strongest government force in the city, which backs Haftar.
The extent of the militias’ control over Benghazi was not clear. Military officials denied militia control, and it appeared the fighters had withdrawn from some of the barracks after looting them. Haftar loyalists continue to control Benghazi’s airport, but appeared to have been driven out of the city.
The city’s streets were nearly empty Thursday, with residents staying indoors and no sign of checkpoints by either militiamen or security forces. The main police headquarters was still smoldering after it was hit by militia shelling a day earlier, and smoke rose from the barracks of the Special Forces.
“We are the only force on the ground in Benghazi,” a commander of one of the coalition’s factions told the Associated Press. He said the coalition’s fighters had driven all army forces and fighters loyal to Haftar out the city.
In a video put out by Ansar al-Shariah, its commander Mohammad al-Zahawi congratulates followers on “this victory and conquest.” He was shown standing in front of a tank inside the base of the Special Forces.
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