Militants driven out of Benghazi after 3 years

Long-term peace in city will boost militia leader's hand in Libyan power struggle

CAIRO • After three years of sporadic combat, the fighting is over in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, at least for now.

The city erupted in jubilation late on Wednesday after the commander of a militia in the area, General Khalifa Hifter, announced on television that his forces had vanquished the Islamist fighters they had been battling in Benghazi for the past three years. Wearing military-style regalia, Gen Hifter said that all that remained was to clear battle-scarred neighbourhoods of land mines and unexploded ordnance.

Forces loyal to Gen Hifter, a brash and ambitious former Libyan army officer, have claimed victory in Benghazi before. But this time, residents said they believed that the news was genuine, with thousands of people streaming into the streets after his address to celebrate amid sounds of honking horns and triumphant gunfire.

If the peace holds this time, it will be a milestone for Gen Hifter, who has emerged as the dominant commander in eastern Libya, with support from neighbouring Egypt.

It strengthens his hand in Libya's chaotic power struggle, particularly against the rival government that is backed by the United Nations and based in Tripoli, the capital.

That administration, led by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, has struggled to unite Libya, or even achieve control over Tripoli, since it was formed last year. It is opposed by another government, led by Islamic fighters and other militia groups, that also claims authority over the divided Libyan capital.

The local media reported that a family of six had been killed in the latest factional fighting near Tripoli's only functioning airport this week.

Gen Hifter, at least, can claim unrivalled control over Benghazi, the main city in eastern Libya, where four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed by a mob in 2012. Gen Hifter has been battling Islamic militants, including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, for control of Benghazi since 2014.

Still, Gen Hifter's forces have been accused of human rights abuses, and some critics accuse him of seeking to emulate the strongman rule of Muammar Gaddafi, who was ousted and killed in 2011.

But Gen Hifter appears to enjoy broad support in the eastern part of the country, where after six years of turmoil, Libyans crave stability. Last year, his forces seized control of several of Libya's major oil terminals. Oil is the country's primary source of wealth, and since the seizures, production has increased to almost one million barrels a day.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2017, with the headline 'Militants driven out of Benghazi after 3 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe