CAIRO (AP) — A military helicopter that was part of the eastern Libya army force commanded by strongman Khalifa Hifter was shot down Friday and contact has been lost with the crew members, an army spokesman said.
Faisal Ahbale told The Associated Press that the helicopter was struck in central Libya, where the air forces waged at least nine airstrikes throughout the day targeting militias known as Benghazi Defense Brigades.
The militias are a mixture of Islamic militants and former rebels who were recently defeated by Hifter's forces in Benghazi, Libya' second largest city. Two months ago, suspected militias struck a military helicopter in Benghazi, but its crew members survived.
Ahbale said that it's not clear yet what kind of weapon was used to down the helicopter.
In a statement carried by al-Nabaa TV network, the militias said that it shot down a helicopter and described the attack as "significant" but declined to give more details on the site of the helicopter. It also said that one of the crew members were killed while the other is still missing.
Ahbale said the militias were advancing toward a key oil field in the hands of the army and called al-Mabrouk, located 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of the so-called Oil Crescent — a geographical region along the central part of Libya's Mediterranean Sea coast where most oil terminals are located.
He said five militiamen were killed and 20 wounded.
Libya has descended into chaos since the 2011 civil war, which ended with the killing of the longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The country has been split into two competing parliaments and governments, and each is back by a set of militias, tribes and political factions.
In 2015, the United Nations — in an attempt to seal the rift — brokered a peace deal aimed at creating a national unity government. Members arrived in the capital last year but since then have failed to win a crucial vote of confidence from the internationally recognized parliament seated in eastern Libya.
Hifter's army is allied with the parliament and has been engaged in a years-long campaign against Islamic militants, mainly in Benghazi but recently across the eastern region, where the forces have taken control over the oil crescent.