By Ayman al-Warfalli
BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Four Libyan soldiers were killed when clashes erupted between the army and militant Islamists in the eastern city of Benghazi on Thursday, army and security officials said.
Libya's nascent military is struggling to curb Islamist militants and militias who fought in the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi but refuse to disarm and control parts of the OPEC producer.
Western powers fear the North African country will slide towards instability and become a safe haven for al Qaeda as much of the country is controlled by militias or heavily-armed tribes.
Fighting initially broke out on Monday between army special forces and members of the Ansar Sharia in Libya's second-largest city, killing at least nine people before the Islamists retreated from their main base. Three more soldiers were killed on Wednesday.
New violence erupted on Thursday after soldiers stopped a car loaded with weapons, explosives and large amount of money.
"Three soldiers were (then) killed in clashes with Ansar al-Sharia," Wanis Bukhmada, commander of the special forces in Benghazi, told a news conference.
He later told Reuters: "We will defend Benghazi."
Another soldier was assassinated by unknown gunmen in the morning in another part of the city, a security source said.
Army officials went on nationwide television to appeal to the Islamists and other militias to lay down weapons and start a dialogue.
"Brothers of the Ansar al-Sharia. You are Muslims and we are Muslims. We don't differ on religion... but don't impose something which is not part of the religion," Salah Obeidi, army commander of the eastern region, told reporters.
The security situation has sharply deteriorated in the past few months in Benghazi where car bombings and assassinations are part of daily life.
Most countries have closed their consulates in the city of one million inhabitants, home to several oil companies. Some foreign airlines also have stopped flying there.
Ansar al-Sharia was blamed for the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi a year ago when the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
In another incident at least ten people were killed when an army ammunition depot exploded near Sabha in southern Libya, General Mohamed al-Dhabi, a regional military commander, told Reuters. He said the blast might have been triggered by poor handling of the ammunition.
The chaos in Libya is worrying its neighbors and the Western powers that backed the uprising which led to the fall of Gaddafi two years ago in one of the Arab Spring revolts.
Hoping to co-opt former fighters, the government hired militia groups to provide security. But they remain loyal to their commanders or tribes, and often clash in disputes over territory or personal feuds.
Oil exports are down to a fraction of capacity due to seizures of oilfields and ports by militias, tribesmen and civil servants demanding more political rights or higher pay.
(Reporting by Ghaith Shennib, Ayman al-Warfalli and Ulf Laessing)