Deadly car bombing hits Libya's volatile Benghazi

BENGHAZI (AFP) - A powerful car bomb exploded on Monday near a hospital in the Libyan city of Benghazi, killing and wounding dozens and unleashing international condemnation.

Officials gave contradicting death tolls after the devastating bomb destroyed a restaurant and damaged cars and buildings near Al-Jala hospital in the centre of Benghazi.

Youths took to the streets to protest against the insecurity still ravaging the city which was the cradle of the uprising against late dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Deputy Interior Minister Abdullah Massoud said 15 people were killed and 30 wounded in the attack. He stressed it was a "preliminary toll".

A health ministry spokesman in Tripoli, Salah Abdeldayem, later told AFP that four people died and six were wounded.

A police official in Benghazi, Tarak al-Kharaz, told Libya's Al-Ahrar television station that 13 had died and 41 were wounded.

Witnesses said children were among the casualties of what commentators said was the first attack of its kind to hit Libyan civilians in broad daylight since the 2011 uprising.

Dozens of people, many of them youths, rushed to the scene, some even volunteering to gather body parts and place them in plastic bags, AFP journalists reported.

The bombing wrecked cars and scattered debris. The deputy interior minister said the blast "totally destroyed a restaurant" and damaged buildings near the hospital.

Justice Minister Salah al-Mirghani denounced a "terrorist act" and urged national "unity".

A Benghazi security official said: "We don't know yet whether the attack targeted civilians or a particular individual." The UN Support Mission in Libya condemned the "criminal attack" and urged all Libyans to put up a united front against "all attempts at destruction, terrorism and the destabilisation of Libya."

A UN Security Council statement "condemned in the strongest terms" the Benghazi attack.

"The members of the Security Council underlined the commitment of the international community to support Libya's successful transition to a secure, peaceful and prosperous democracy," added the statement released late Monday.

Benghazi, Libya's second city, has seen a wave of violence in recent weeks.

But previous attacks, bombings or assassinations, have rocked the city by night or in the early hours when the streets are empty, and have hit non-civilian targets.

Four police stations have been bombed in Benghazi in recent days - two on Friday and two on Sunday.

Authorities blame radical Islamists for the violence, including a deadly attack in September against the US consulate in Benghazi that killed ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

US President Barack Obama has come under fire over the consulate attack from Republicans and conservative media who accuse his administration of trying to downplay it.

Obama said on Monday that the campaign, which hit new heights with House of Representatives hearings on the issue last week, "has been a sideshow".

The United States and Britain have withdrawn some staff from their Tripoli embassies citing concerns over a flare-up between militiamen and the authorities.

The British Council cultural agency closed its Libyan office for a week for the same reason, and oil giant BP said it had pulled out some non-essential overseas staff from the country.

Last week the United States issued a travel advisory warning against "all travel to Benghazi" and other parts of Libya.

The militias, mostly former anti-Kadhafi rebels, surrounded the foreign and justice ministries to press for former officials of his regime to be barred from holding government jobs.

They lifted the siege on Sunday after a two-week standoff, and days after a pledge by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan to reshuffle the cabinet soon.

The militias were hailed as heroes but have also been accused themselves of causing the instability that has hit Libya.

Monday's car bombing comes three weeks after a similar attack on the French embassy in Tripoli.

France and Britain led the creation of a NATO no-fly zone in Libya in 2011 which played a key role in the overthrow of Kadhafi.