BENGHAZI Libya (Reuters) - Sitting 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 25 km (miles) 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 recognized 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.
But the rare victory of pro-government forces after an offensive launched on Wednesday comes at a heavy price. Benina looks like ghost town.
A Reuters reporter on a tour of the suburb organized by the army saw that almost all residential blocks, schools, a hospital and even a mosque were severely damaged or even destroyed.
More than 70 people have been killed in clashes since Wednesday. Fighting was continuing on Tuesday in other parts of Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 uprising that spiraled into a NATO-backed civil war against Gaddafi’s one-man rule.
Collapsed roofs in several residential buildings and the mosque in Benina point to air strikes. Haftar has said his air force joined the battle when Ansar al-Sharia — blamed by Washington for an attack on its consulate in 2012 that killed the U.S. ambassador — approached the town from several fronts.
The Islamists have accused Egypt of carrying at air strikes in Benghazi to support Haftar, which Egyptian officials deny.
The U.S. Government has said Cairo and the United Arab Emirates were behind strikes on Tripoli in August that failed to stop the seizure of the capital by the armed group from Misrata.
Libya’s tiny and outdated airforce was badly damaged during the NATO-backed uprising in 2011.
In Benina, neglected like most cities in the east under Gaddafi as punishment for opposing his 42-year rule, street lights are upturned. The pot-holed roads are littered with shells from Grad rocket launchers, artillery and Kalashnikov guns.
The special forces, the most experienced of Libya’s army, have set up checkpoints with trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns after fighting street-by-street to regain lost territory. No-one else could be seen.
“The Benina area has become a disaster zone,” said Fadhl al-Hasi, one of Bukhamada’s senior officers.
At the civilian airport, closed since Haftar began his campaign in May, the passenger terminal has been severely damaged. Windows are shattered and the roof has holes — the building looks like the terminal at Tripoli International Airport, which was largely destroyed after more than a month of fighting in the capital between armed groups during the summer.
Soldiers said the airport, used until recently by international carriers, was hit several times by Grad rockets. The control center at the airforce base next door is intact.
While the army seemed to be in control of Benina on Tuesday, fighting inside Benghazi continued. Army backed by armed youth were clashing with Islamists inside the compound of Benghazi university and other places, residents said.
But Bukhamada remains optimistic his forces will win the battle for the city. “We will return to our barracks which we had lost,” he said.
Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Catherine Evans