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Benghazi Islamist militants on their last straw, analyst says

Analyst Abdul Hakim Maatouk said major changes will be seen in Libya over the coming days

Hind Mustafa

Published: Updated:

The al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia Islamist Libyan militia group, on Thursday branded renegade Libyan General Khalifa Haftar a “criminal,” and called on those who have joined his Operation Dignity - a military campaign aimed at abolishing Islamist militias - to break away from him.

“To those who were involved in the so-called Operation Dignity, to those who followed the footsteps tyrant Haftar… this is a call from the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries to return and not betray the nation,” the group said in a statement obtained by Al Arabiya.

On the same day, the militant group declared an “Islamic emirate” in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, after announcing that it gained complete control over it.

“Benghazi has now become an Islamic emirate,” said Mohammed al-Zahawi, an official representative for the armed group told Radio Tawhid station.

However, Haftar denied the group’s claims.

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

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

Political analyst Abdul Hakim Maatouk, former editor-in-chief to Libya’s al-Shams newspaper, says the statement is an attempt of portraying power and dominance by the militants.

“They are having the dance of the slaughtered [before death],” Maatouk told Al Arabiya News on Thursday.

Blacklisted

Ansar al-Sharia is blacklisted by the United States over its alleged role in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in 2012 that killed U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens.

The declaration comes a month after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – another Islamist militant group - announced an “Islamic caliphate” over their territory.

Their announcement also comes following two days of fighting in which Islamist fighters and allied militiamen overran an army base in the city.

“What happened was not the fall of Benghazi, but there is a tactical mistake between the army’s Saiqa Special Forces and General Khalifa Haftar,” Maatouk said.

According to him, the error caused the army losses, but “it reassembled yesterday and defeated them, civilians also attacked them and kicked them out.”

Many militant groups in Libya, Syria and Iraq have the habit of “hiding in residential areas around civilians and hospitals,” Maatouk said.

“The army will advance, and I promise that there will be dramatic changes in the scene over the coming 48 hours,” he said.

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 heavy fighting.

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.

Tripoli

Meanwhile, the country's western region - including the capital Tripoli - has been hit with a full power cut after shelling on power plants.

The Health Ministry said in a statement Thursday that the death toll in Tripoli since violence intensified the past month reached 179, with more than 700 people wounded, the Associated Press reported.

Three years after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, the OPEC nation has failed to rein in former rebel militias who refuse to disband, threatening the country’s unity.

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

Several foreign nations have since withdrawn their citizens and diplomats from the state.