Thousands flee Libya violence to Tunisia

Ansar al-Sharia declares it has full control of eastern city of Benghazi but renegade Gen. Haftar denies claim

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Up to 6,000 people a day have fled Libya into neighboring Tunisia this week, The Associated Press quoted Tunisia’s foreign minister as saying Wednesday, in the biggest influx since Libya’s 2011 civil war, amid conflicting reports over the fate of the eastern city of Benghazi.

Monji Hamdi did not give a full figure for the number of Libyans who have entered the country in recent days but said they were coming at a rate of 5,000 to 6,000 a day and that the rate was increasing, the AP reported.


He said Tunisia cannot absorb large numbers of refugees and warned that Tunis could close the border.

The weeks-long fighting is the worst violence seen in the Libyan capital since the 2011 civil war. Nearly 100 people have been killed, 400 others wounded, and much of the airport has been destroyed.

A giant fire has been raging the past three days after shelling hit airport oil depots, forcing nearby residents to evacuate, with firefighters largely unable to put it down because of clashes.

Meanwhile, Ansar al-Sharia, a group blacklisted by the United States over its alleged role in an attack on the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi in 2012, declared it had seized complete control of the city, sources told Al Arabiya News Channel.

However, Khalifa Haftar, a retired, renegade former army general who earlier this year launched a self-declared campaign to clear the city of Islamist militants, denied the group’s claims.

“The national Libyan army is in control of Benghazi and only withdrew from certain positions for tactical reason,” Haftar told Al Arabiya News Channel.

“The claim that Benghazi is under the control of militias is a lie,” he said.

Ansar al-Sharia's declaration comes following two days of fighting in which Islamist fighters and allied militiamen overran an army base in the city.

Al Arabiya’s correspondent in Libya reported that Islamist groups had seized the headquarters of the Libyan army's Special Forces in Benghazi late on Tuesday following heaving fighting.

Special Forces and some regular air force units had recently joined forces with Haftar in the eastern city.

A government MiG warplane crashed during Tuesday's fighting in Benghazi. A Reuters reporter saw the pilot parachuting to ground after hearing an explosion.

An Islamist and jihadist alliance announced the capture of the Benghazi base in a statement Tuesday and Turkey's Anadolu news agency quoted Talal Bin Harir, a Benghazi Shura Council member, as saying that the Islamists were in control of the army base.

The self-declared Benghazi Shura Council includes former rebels and militants from the Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia.

At least 75 bodies, mostly soldiers, were found in the eastern city following the clashes at the base, Reuters news agency reported on Wednesday.

In the Libyan capital, meanwhile, rival Libyan militias fighting for control of Tripoli's airport agreed to a temporary ceasefire to allow firefighters to try to control the blaze at the fuel depot, Reuters said.

Italy's government and Italian oil group ENI have agreed to help the Libyan authorities put out the fire, the Libyan government said.

Militias fight for upper hand

Three years after the fall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi, the OPEC nation has failed to control former rebel militias who refuse to disband and threaten the unity of the country.

The extent of recent hostilities has increased Western worries that Libya is sliding toward becoming a failed state and may once again go to war.

Despite the violence, Libya's oil production remained at around 500,000 barrels per day, and its oilfields are secure, Samir Salim Kamal, director of planning at the oil ministry told Reuters on Tuesday.

That was an increase from earlier this year when unrest pushed output as low as about 200,000 bpd, but it remains well below the usual 1.4 million bpd.

While the tribal way of life declined as growing oil wealth attracted Libyans to towns and cities, traditional power structures remain strong in the nation of about six million.

Qaddafi's strategy effectively amounted to a system of divide and rule, buying off established tribal leaders.

In Egypt, the army has proved to be the supreme political force but in the post-Qaddafi era the Libyan militias are fighting for power, influence and oil wealth.

Exit from Libya

Since clashes erupted two weeks ago, foreign states have followed suit of the United States and the United Nations which both withdrew diplomats from the oil-producing state.

The French Foreign Ministry temporarily closed its embassy in Libya on Wednesday. Spain has been evacuating more nationals and some diplomats from Tripoli since Tuesday.

Canada is temporarily pulling out its diplomats due to fears about their safety, Foreign Minister John Baird said on Tuesday.

China has evacuated several hundred workers from Libya and is taking them by ship to Malta, Reuters quoted the head of the Malta Civil Service, Mario Cutajar, as saying Wednesday.

The Philippines also said it had chartered a ship to take up to 1,000 Filipinos to Malta.

AFP quoted medics and security officials as saying that unidentified gunmen had kidnapped and raped a Filipina nurse in the Libyan capital on Wednesday.

(With AP, Reuters and AFP)

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