October 16, 2014 / 3:48 PM / 3 years ago

Libyan Red Crescent calls for Benghazi ceasefire as fighting rages

BENGHAZI Libya (Reuters) - Libya’s Red Crescent called on Thursday for a ceasefire in the eastern city of Benghazi to allow the evacuation of families trapped by street fighting between Islamist militants and pro-government forces supported by local youths.

Banks, government offices, supermarkets and some hospitals were closed in Libya’s second-largest city on the second day of the clashes. War planes bombed suspected Islamist positions.

The death toll from two days of fighting rose to at least 17 after four more bodies were brought to hospitals on Thursday, medics said. One hospital was running out of medical supplies, a health official said.

The port city, home to several oil firms, is caught up in a chaotic struggle for control between an alliance of Islamist militia groups and the army, amid turmoil in the oil producer three years after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.

Troops loyal to former general Khalifa Haftar and allied to the army launched an offensive on Wednesday to regain ground after Ansar al-Sharia and other Islamist groups overran some army camps and were closing in on the airport.

Residents joined Haftar’s forces, trying to dismantle checkpoints set up by the Islamists. Gunfire could be heard in several areas, forcing residents to stay indoors.

“We urge all parties for a ceasefire, if only for one hour, to allow the evacuation of families from their houses,” the Benghazi branch of the Red Crescent said in a statement.

“We have received tens of messages from citizens ... asking for the evacuation of families,” it said on it Facebook website.

Haftar’s forces and the army said they were in full control of the February 17 militia camp, previously controlled by Islamists. Pictures posted on Facebook pages showed soldiers in a courtyard of the camp.

Special forces commander Wanis Bukhamda told Reuters the airport area was under full army control after Ansar al-Sharia - blamed by Washington for an assault on the former U.S. consulate in 2012 which killed the American ambassador - fled.

“The terrorists have been expelled,” he said.

The plight of Benghazi underlines the central government’s inability to control rival armed factions that once fought Gaddafi and now battle over post-war spoils.

Libya’s neighbors and Western powers fear the OPEC member is heading for full-blown civil war as the weak government is unable to challenge brigades of heavily armed former rebels who now defy the state’s authority.

The government’s grip on power across Libya has been sharply eroded by seizure of the capital Tripoli by an armed group allied with the western city of Misrata, which has set up an alternative government and reinstated the former parliament, known as the General National Congress.

The internationally recognized government and the newly elected House of Representatives have moved to the city of Tobruk near the border with Egypt.

Reporting by Feras Bosalum, Ahmed Elumami, Ayman al-Warfalli and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Gunna Dickson

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