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September 25, 2017

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Libya ex-general readies new 'anti-terror' offensive

BENGHAZI, Libya--Eastern Libya descended further into anarchy Sunday as a rogue general accused by Tripoli of staging a coup readied a new offensive against Islamist groups, vowing to eradicate "terrorism."

Officials said Saturday that fierce fighting in the North African nation's second city Benghazi, a hotbed of Islamist militancy, had killed at least 79 people and wounded 141.

The fighting erupted on Friday, as retired general Khalifa Haftar unleashed his so-called National Army on Islamist militiamen in the city, backed by warplanes and helicopters.

"Each battle is followed by a regrouping of units. And we will return in force," Haftar said on Saturday after his men withdrew late Friday.

"We will not give up until we achieve our goals," he said, claiming to have responded "to the call of the people to eradicate Benghazi of terrorism."

The government accused the "outlaw" Haftar of trying to mount a coup and declared a Benghazi no-fly zone, vowing to shoot down aircraft that defy the ban.

Haftar, who led ground forces in the 2011 uprising that toppled Moamer Gadhafi, said: "Our operation is not a coup and we do not plan to seize power."

"This operation has a precise goal which is the eradication of terrorism" in Libya, he told reporters.

Haftar defected from Gadhafi's forces in the late 1980s and spent nearly 20 years in the United States before joining the uprising.

Detractors accuse him of being in the pay of the Americans.

Haftar has the support of rogue officers and army units, and seemed to act on his own accord on Friday.

Health ministry official Abdallah al-Fitouri said Saturday the violence had claimed 79 lives.

Nuri Abu Sahmein, head of the country's highest political body the General National Congress, denounced Haftar's military operation.

It is "an action outside state legitimacy and a coup d'etat," said a joint statement read on state television by the GNC chief, flanked by recently appointed Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani and armed forces chief of staff Abdessalam Jadallah al-Salihin.

"All those who took part in this coup bid will be prosecuted."

A Challenge to Tripoli

Haftar responded by saying he does not recognize the interim authorities whose "mandate has already expired and who are rejected by the people."

The interim parliament sparked outrage earlier this year when it extended its own mandate from February until December.

Subsequent protests compelled it to promise early elections and a new electoral law.

Haftar's unilateral move in attacking the "terrorists" is a challenge to the authorities that have struggled to stomp out lawlessness in a country awash with weapons from the uprising and effectively ruled by a patchwork of former rebels.

Ex-rebels, particularly Islamists, have been blamed for attacks that have killed dozens of members of security forces, judges and foreigners in Benghazi, cradle of the 2011 revolt.

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