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CAIRO (AP) — Troops loyal to a rogue general launched airstrikes on Sunday against Islamist militias in Benghazi, a Libyan security official said, in what appeared to a new push into the city itself as part of his ongoing offensive against the fighters.
The strikes followed a ground assault with infantry and clashes earlier in the day that left five dead. Both actions seemed to be part of a plan by Gen. Khalifa Hifter and his forces to seize control of the eastern city.
Hifter told reporters later Sunday that the new push followed attacks by militias against his forces on the outskirts on the city.
"Our eyes are open," he told reporters. He said his forces had tried to ease military operations ahead of elections expected later this month, but the militants prompted the recent clashes. "Every time we give them a chance, they try to seize it."
Libya is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on June 25, aimed to end a standoff between Islamist and non-Islamist political groups.
The official said Hifter's forces lost four fighters while a member of an Islamist militia also died in the fighting. He spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Benghazi was a ghost town late Sunday, as banks and businesses shut down. The fighting caused power outages in Libya's second largest city, according to the electricity ministry and residents in the city. Communications networks were also disrupted.
The official said Hifter's forces were met by fire from Islamist militias in the neighborhoods of Siddi Faraj and Qawarsha. It appeared to be the first time Hifter's forces have made a concerted ground assault on parts of the city. They previously have launched attacks from Benghazi's outskirts and carried out limited airstrikes.
Sunday's airstrikes were carried out using helicopters, the official said. It was not immediately clear what the specific targets were.
Essam al-Jahni, a Benghazi resident, said families fled areas where the fighting was taking place in the city center and its eastern edges, after Hifter's forces issued a warning to them on Sunday. He added that Hifter's forces had deployed tanks to those areas early Sunday morning.
The fighting has escalated the crisis in Libya, which has been embroiled in turmoil since the 2011 civil war and the downfall of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Heavily armed militias, born out of the rebel groups that toppled Gadhafi, are now the main power in the country.
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