Several Libyan military units, including a special force, a second air base and Benghazi's naval base, announced on Monday joining the forces of a rogue general against militant Islamists, highlighting the failure of central government in Tripoli to assert its authority.
“We are joining the “operation of dignity” launched by the Libyan National Army with all our men and weapons,” said Colonel Wanis Abu Khamada, of the name given to the operation launched by rogue General Khalifa Haftar.
“The battle will continue until terrorism is eradicated,” added Abu Khamada, who is widely respected in Libya, especially in Benghazi.
His unit known as Saaqa is the best trained troops of Libya's nascent army and it has been in many firefights with Islamist militias in the restive city.
It has been deployed since last year in Benghazi to help stem a wave of car bombs and assassinations, but struggled to curb the activities of heavily-armed Islamist militias roaming the city, according to Reuters.
An air base in Tobruk in Libya's fareast also declared alliance with Haftar's forces to fight “extremists.”
“The Tobruk air force base will join ... the army under the command of General Khalifa Qassim Haftar,” the statement said. Staff at the air base confirmed its authenticity.
Benghazi’s naval base was the latest military facility to defect to the rebel ranks. It said in a statement that it was joining “the operation of dignity.”
The latest announcements give a major boost the rebel leader Haftar, who has been denounced by the Tripoli government as attempting to stage a coup.
It remains unclear how many troops support Haftar, whose forces launched an attack on Islamist militants in Benghazi on Friday in which more than 70 people died. Militiamen apparently allied to Haftar also stormed parliament in Tripoli on Sunday.
Attacks attributed to extremist Islamists there have killed dozens of his men in recent months.
Ansar al-Sharia, a group based in Benghazi and classified as a terrorist organization by Washington, has come in for particular blame.
In response, Libya’s army chief ordered the deployment of Islamist-led militias to the capital, paving the way for a possible showdown between rival fighters.
Parliament chief Nouri Abu Sahmein, an Islamist-leaning politician, ordered a powerful umbrella group of mainly Islamist militias, known as “Libya’s Central Shield,” to mobilize on Monday to defend against Haftar’s forces.
The umbrella group is dominated by a militia from Libya’s third-largest city Misrata.
One of Libya’s many al-Qaeda-inspired extremist groups on Monday vowed to fight Haftar’s forces.
“You’ve entered a battle you’ll lose,” a masked militant, identifying himself as Abu Musab al-Arabi, said in a video posted on militant websites.
In a political move, the government proposed an initiative aimed at saving the country from plunging into civil war, calling on the disputed parliament to go into recess.
An open letter published on the government's website said the General National Congress should "take a recess after the vote on the 2014 budget and until new parliamentary elections" within three months so the country does not descend into civil war.
The budget vote had been expected to take place this week amid a dramatic spike in lawlessness in Libya's two largest cities.
The government plea comes a day after the GNC was attacked by armed groups demanding its dissolution and after a retired general launched an offensive targeting Islamists in Benghazi on Friday.
The initiative also calls for a new vote of confidence in the GNC for new premier Ahmed Miitig following a chaotic and contested first vote at the beginning of the month.
The looming showdown threatens to deepen chaos in the OPEC oil producer, sending alarms to foreign missions in to neighboring countries.
Saudi Arabia on Monday closed its embassy and evacuated its diplomats.
“All the diplomatic staff has left the Libyan capital aboard a private plane due to the security situation through which Libya is passing,” said Ambassador Mohammed Mahmoud al-Ali.
The mission will reopen and the diplomats will return “when the situation stabilizes in the Libyan capital,” he added. “We are in contact with the Libyan side on all developments.”
Turkey also temporarily closed its consulate in Benghazi on Monday, a spokesman said, citing security threats.
The Algerian state energy firm Sonatrach has ordered its workers back from Libya over security concerns in the neighboring country, a source at the company said on Monday.
Around 50 Sonatrach workers were working in Libya, and all will be out within two days, the source said. On Friday, Algeria sent a special forces team into Tripoli to evacuate its ambassador and embassy staff following threats, according to Reuters.
Algeria has also imposed restrictions on border crossings, allowing only Algerian citizens to cross from Libya and only Libyan citizens into Libya, a security source said.
Washington said it was closely monitoring an upsurge of violence in Libya, but has not decided yet whether to order the closure of its embassy in Tripoli.
"We remain very concerned about the violence over the weekend in Tripoli and Benghazi," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, calling on all sides to "refrain from violence."
The United States has been closely watching events in Libya ever since the ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three other Americans were killed in a 2012 militant attack on a US diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
The mission, which was badly damaged in a fire, was closed in the wake of the attack, and embassy staff in Tripoli were reduced to emergency levels.
[With AFP and Reuters]SHOW MORE