TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Explosions rocked the eastern city of Benghazi on Monday as clashes resumed for second day between army units loyal to a renegade general military and Islamist militias, causing panic as civilians were caught in crossfires and trapped in their homes because of the violence, officials and witnesses said.
A hospital official said that so far at least eight people were killed and 15 wounded.
Army helicopters bombed camps and suspected Islamist hideouts , while militiamen responded by firing Rocket Propelled Grenades, anti-aircraft guns and attacking military units allied with Gen. Khalifa Hifter.
A former Gadhafi-era army chief, Hifter has rallied support among the country's weakened military, anti-Islamist politicians, tribes and diplomats and vowed to crush Islamist militias he blames for Libya's instability.
The gunbattles started late Sunday and continued overnight, forcing the Education Ministry to cancel high school exams.
Witnesses said, the clashes expanded to the outskirts of Benghazi University and spread to different districts where militia camps and army troops are located. Houses in at least four districts near the clashes were hit by cross fire and some were hit by the grenades, witnesses said.
There was panic in Benghazi southern and southwestern districts where citizens set up checkpoints to prevent rival forces from taking shelter inside their buildings while shops were closed, witnesses said.
Residents have also been unable to leave the city because airport has been shut down since Hifter's offensive began three weeks ago, while going through its main entrances and exits has also been risky because of the violence.
Hifter spokesman Mohammed al-Hegazi called on residents to stay away from the areas where fighting wss taking place. He accused Islamist militias of firing at houses and civilians.
"This is not a football match. This is a war. People must stay way so they won't be used as human shields," he said
Witnesses said civilians are taking up arms, either to join sides or just to protect themselves.
The clashes left eight dead and 15 wounded, according the spokeswoman of al-Jalaa hospital in Benghazi Fadia al-Barghathi. Hospitals called for blood donations.
The military officials are also saying that helicopter gunships flown by pilots loyal to the Hifter have been bombing the base of the February 17 militia and camps belonging to the militant Ansar al-Shariah group, all located on the city's western outskirts.
An Ansar al-Shariah spokesperson said that its forces have not yet been involved in any of the fighting and that the Feb. 17 militia was being shelled.
Al-Qaida-linked Ansar al-Shariah has been connected to the deadly assault on U.S. post in Benghazi which left four Americans dead, including US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.
The officials say gunbattles flared early Monday when an Islamist militia attacked an army unit known as Al-Zawiya Martyrs Brigade, which had declared its alliance with Hifter's so-called "Dignity Operation" against Islamic groups when it began nearly three weeks ago. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
On Sunday aircraft targeted an Ansar al-Shariah's compound in Benghazi's western district.
Hifter claims to have more than 75 percent of Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, under his control. He also says he is getting help from moderate Islamists who are breaking away from their militias and joining his forces. The eastern city was the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled Moammar Gadhafi.
Earlier, the top leader of Ansar al-Shariah threatened to fight Hifter and accused him of being an "American traitor" who is supported by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and who wants to replicate Egypt's military takeover of power.