TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Fierce fighting in eastern Libya between army troops loyal to a rogue general and two militias killed 24 people Friday, with the country's top military official calling the offensive launched without government approval a "coup."
The clashes forced closure of the city main airport late Friday.
Military aircraft and helicopters, apparently under the command of Gen. Khalifa Hifter, flew over the eastern city of Benghazi, Libyan security officials said. On the ground, Hifter's troops besieged the bases of the Islamist militia Rafallah al-Sahati and a militia known as February 17, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists.
The clashes killed at least 24 people, according to several health officials in at least four hospitals in the city where bodies arrived. A total of 124 were wounded, officials said.
Mohammed al-Hegazi, a spokesman for Hifter, told Libyan television station Al-Ahrar that some military units joined Hifter and his forces in their fight against the Islamist militia.
He said the operation, called the "Dignity of Libya," include air forces and special forces. Al-Hegazi said Hifter's forces now controlled the two militia bases.
The "clashes will not stop until the operation achieves its goals," al-Hegazi said. He said forces based at the city's airport also joined Hifter. It was not immediately possible to verify his claims. Associated Press footage from Benghazi showed at least one military helicopter flying overhead as gunfire crackled in the city.
Speaking from Benghazi, Ismail al-Salabi, commander of the Rafallah al-Sahati, called the attack a coup, denying the militia bases had been overrun. Another commander, Fathi al-Obeidi, called Hifter's attack "a rebellion against revolutionaries, the state and the legitimate revolt."
Libya's state LANA news agency quoted Milad al-Zowi, a special forces spokesman, denying that his troops were involved.
Maj. Gen. Abdel-Salam Gadallah al-Obeidi, Libya's chief of staff, said forces that launched the Benghazi assault were under Hifter's control. However, he did not address claims that federal forces fought on Hifter's side.
Al-Obeidi said he will ban any forces from entering Benghazi to join Hifter, without elaborating. Al-Obeidi later described the unfolding events as a "coup."
Benina, Benghazi's airport, has been closed at night because of the fighting, said Ibrahim Farkash, the airport head. "We had to ensure safety of the passengers," he told private network al-Nabaa TV.
Interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani later said only one jet moved out to attack the militias without government permission, along with some 120 weapons-loaded army vehicles.
"This is an attempt to use the current security situation to stand against the revolution. ... The era of coup is gone," he said in a televised statement.
Militias grew in number and power after the ouster of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, taking advantage of Libya's weak and disarrayed military and police. One militia captured and shut down four oil terminals in its demand for a share in oil revenues, costing the country billions of dollars before they reopened. Some other terminals are still closed.
Friday's assault marks the first time that army units have fought unilaterally and joined forces with Hifter, who once headed the army under Gadhafi but defected in the 1980s. After Gadhafi's ouster, he was assigned to help rebuild the forces, but he was removed soon after.
In February, Hifter appeared in an online video aired on several Libyan television stations. Wearing a military uniform, he stood in front of a map of Libya and the national flag and claimed to speak for the "general command of the Libyan army."
In the video, he said the military intended to "rescue" the nation. Libya's government viewed Hifter's statement as a coup attempt. Later Libyan media reports claimed Hifter held meetings in air bases in eastern Libya to win the support of the military.
The fighting marks the latest turmoil in Benghazi, where a Sept. 11, 2012, attack killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Meanwhile Friday, Algerian's Foreign Ministry announced the closure of its embassy in Tripoli, citing "information of a clear and imminent threat" to its diplomatic personnel. The statement did not specify if the ambassador and his staff had been evacuated and described the closure as a temporary measure in light of the "difficult security conditions." Other diplomats and foreigners have been kidnapped there in the past.
Associated Press writers Mariam Rizk in Cairo and Karim Kebir in Algiers, Algeria, contributed to this report.