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الأربعاء، 26 يونيو 2013

Benghazi: violence continues

Benghazi: violence continues

Kamel Abdallah

People gather around a burnt-out vehicle used by the Libyan army’s First Infantry Brigade, one of two military vehicles set on fire by protesters, in Benghazi

Libya is being propelled towards chaos and the government is too weak to stop it, reports Kamel Abdallah

June 21, 2013
At dawn on Saturday 15 June, clashes erupted near Benghazi Benina International Airport between Libyan commando forces and unidentified gunmen who are believed to belong to the radical Takfir wal-Hijra and jihadist Salafist groups. The battle, which shifted to Benghazi’s poor Al-Laythi district, left six dead and several wounded.

Colonel Mohamed Al-Hijazi, a spokesman for the Joint Operations Security Room in Benghazi, said that four commandos were shot by professional snipers who belonged to the masked gangs that had barricaded themselves in Al-Laythi neighbourhood. The gunmen used light and medium artillery against the Special Forces that entered the district and engaged the gunmen. The other two fatalities among the Special Forces officers had been ambushed by a "cell of masked men" on their way to their headquarters and "had their throats slit".

Al-Hijazi also reported that the armed gangs had burned and destroyed several headquarters, camps and machinery belonging to the Libyan army. Among the buildings attacked were the military intelligence headquarters in Sidi Hussein; the first infantry regiment headquarters in Al-Birka, Qanfouda and Boudzira; the Libyan army’s organisation and administration headquarters (formerly the Chiefs of Staff headquarters) in Al-Hadaiq district; and the National Security Directorate headquarters in Buatini. In the latter, a storage facility housing weapons, ammunition and machinery belonging to the security directorate was totally vandalised and burned.

The Special Forces spokesman stated that, on the day preceding the assaults, Libyan army personnel had evacuated the areas around the headquarters and camps in order to avert casualties among the civilians who had gathered near those facilities. He added that the gangs of masked gunmen had fled after having been defeated by Libyan Special Forces who had fought valiantly for the preservation of the security and stability of Benghazi and to protect the city from outlaws.

In the aftermath of this latest round of violence in Libya’s eastern capital, the Libyan Ministry of Defence issued a statement vowing that it would never tolerate assaults against army and police headquarters and public property in Libya, and that it would respond with force against all who attempt to attack these headquarters. The military’s chief-of-staff, General Salem Al-Qinaydi said, "The country is on the brink of a catastrophe, and Benghazi in particular." He warned of "bloodbaths" if gunmen attacked the Special Forces’ barracks and urged "the good citizens, notables and wise men in Benghazi and the neighbouring cities, and the families of the martyrs, to act in order to avert the impending bloodbaths."

In an attempt to restore security in the city, the Ministry of Defence called in army reinforcements from Tripoli to confront the outlaws. More than a week of violence flared following clashes against the pro-Islamist "Shield of Libya" militia that resulted in 32 dead and more than 80 wounded. On Wednesday 12 June, in what appeared to be an act of revenge, the official spokesman for the Joint Operations Security Room, Colonel Abdallah Al-Shaafi was subject to an assassination attempt in the Al-Sabri neighbourhood of Benghazi. Al-Shaafi received a bullet wound in his left leg and was taken to Benghazi Medical Centre, according to the head of the Benghazi Criminal Investigations Department, Ezzeddin Laghwail, who added that Al-Shaafi had returned fire against his assailant, killing him.

Teeming with rival federalist, Islamist and an assortment of regionally and tribally affiliated political camps, and awash with heavy weaponry in the hands of groups with "foreign agendas" — according to the word in the street — Benghazi is a tinderbox. Some political parties charge that certain militias are bent on sewing chaos in the city and propelling Libya towards total civil war between all factions. Many also believe that some foreign parties are fuelling the violence with the aim of partitioning Libya into petty states so as to secure control over the country’s oil wealth.

While the parties that are controlling the militias are benefitting from the security breakdown, the central government is too weak to engage in open confrontations in order to tame the militias and gather in weapons. Not only does the nascent post-revolutionary government in Libya appear unable to extend its authority over the country, but it also appears to lack sufficient clout to encourage political factions to engage in a national dialogue in order to resolve the crisis.

Although the General National Congress (GNC) is the highest ruling authority in the country, it remains unable to persuade the factions to halt the escalation of the violence. GNC member Ibrahim Sahd, who represents the National Front for the Salvation of Libya Party, warned that weapons have proliferated beyond bounds in Benghazi. "The GNC and the government of Ali Zeidan must assume responsibility," he said, adding that the GNC is monitoring developments in Benghazi, the gravity of which should not be underestimated.

In the first statement by a key government official following Saturday’s events, Ministry of Defence spokesman Adel Al-Barasi described the spiralling violence in Benghazi as a chain of retaliatory acts. Nevertheless, he refused to blame any particular party for the attacks on the army and police headquarters. "It is premature to level accusations before investigations are completed," he said. On the other hand, he said that everything must be done to prevent "saboteurs" from seizing control of the Special Forces camp in Benghazi. Such a prospect would "render the city hostage, especially given that the camp has arms depots containing large quantities of ammunition and deterrent weapons." He also warned that if the security deterioration is not brought under control, Libya could sink into a quagmire of bloodshed.

Official spokesman for the military chiefs-of-staff, Colonel Ali Al-Sheikhi, also refrained from levelling accusations, but he did say that the attacks were "systematic" whereas they had previously been described as random.

The way in which the recent attacks in Benghazi were carried out points to Islamist militants as the most likely perpetrators. In addition, Al-Laythi, one of the scenes where last Saturday’s events unfolded, is where the most important camp of the jihadist Salafis and the Tafkir wal-Hijra group is located. That the attacks against the military and police buildings look like acts of revenge undertaken by members of the "Shield of Libya" brigade adds to this suspicion.

Libyans charge that the militant jihadists and takfiris in this militia are connected with Al-Qaeda and are seeking to gain control over Benghazi as a staging post for seizing control over the rest of Libya.


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