TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A renegade general leading a military offensive against Islamists and their allied militias dominating Libya's political scene on Saturday welcomed street rallies in support of his campaign, saying the demonstrations have given him a "mandate" to fight terrorism.
Gen. Khalifa Hifter's remarks came a day after thousands took to the streets in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, the restive eastern city of Benghazi and other cities waving Libyan flags and chanting his name.
"People of Libya, you have given your orders. There is no going back on accepting the mandate and facing up to the challenge," Hifter said in a statement broadcast on Libya's Alahrar TV.
Since launching his campaign eight days ago, Hifter has said he wants to crush Islamist militias backed by Libya's Islamist-dominated parliament, and impose stability after three years of chaos following the ouster and death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in the 2011 civil war.
Hifter has described his offensive as a battle against terrorism. In Saturday's broadcast, Hifter said his forces will not return to their barracks until terrorism is defeated, and called on Libyans to keep up their support for his campaign.
Since Gadhafi's ouster and slaying, Libya has been plagued by a weak central government, lawlessness and out-of control militias that have challenged a weak police and army.
Hifter's spokesman, Mohammed Hegazi, called on troops who have not yet joined the campaign dubbed "Operation Dignity" to do so within 48 hours or "face penalties." He did not elaborate.
In a statement, the U.N. secretary-general's spokesman said Ban Ki-moon is "deeply concerned" by the developments in Libya and called for all parties to resume dialogue. "Armed confrontation risks negating the sacrifices made by the Libyan people during their struggle for freedom and human dignity, particularly at this juncture in the political transition process," the statement said.
Also Saturday, a military jet — apparently flown by a pilot who joined Hifter's forces — soared over the eastern city of Darna, known as a stronghold of an extremist militia.
The plane did not attack, said a militiaman on the ground, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to media.
Hifter's base remains in Benghazi, where he first started his campaign and where militants have attacked and killed government officials, security members and alleged Gadhafi loyalists.
The city is now divided between Hifter's forces and the powerful militias. A volley of missiles fired during an exchange between the two sides hit a residential area late on Friday, wounding a man and his wife, hospital official Fadia al-Barghathi said.
Al-Barghathi also said moderate cleric Saleh Aharaka was killed late Friday with several bullets to the chest and head. Aharaka was a known critic of radical groups.
Later Saturday, a spokesman for Hifter's troops — dubbed the National Libyan Army — warned the parliament against trying to convene again, insisting the chamber has been disbanded.
"Any attempt to meet or convene the parliament anywhere will be considered a legitimate target," said Jamal Habeel, the NLA spokesman.
Last week, fighters allied with Hifter stormed and ransacked the parliament building in Tripoli, and declared the house disbanded.
Days later, some Islamist lawmakers met at an alternative location but failed to approve a new government. The assembly was to meet again on Sunday.