The Red Crescent in Libya has called for a ceasefire in the eastern city of Benghazi to allow the evacuation of families trapped by street fighting between an alliance of militia groups and pro-government forces.
Banks, government offices, supermarkets and some hospitals were closed in Libya’s second-largest city on on Thursday, the second day of the clashes.
War planes, which residents of the city say are Egyptian, continued to bomb suspected positions of the militias, who wish to implement Islamic law in the country.
The death toll from two days of fighting rose to at least 17 after four more bodies were brought to hospitals on Thursday, medics said. One hospital was running out of medical supplies, a health official said.
Troops loyal to retired general Khalifa Haftar and allied to the army launched an offensive on Wednesday to regain ground after al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia and other armed groups overran some army camps and were closing in on the airport.
Residents joined Haftar’s forces, trying to dismantle checkpoints set up by the militias, the Reuters news agency reported. Gunfire could be heard in several areas, forcing residents to stay indoors.
“We urge all parties for a ceasefire, if only for one hour, to allow the evacuation of families from their houses,” the Benghazi branch of the Red Crescent said in a statement.
“We have received tens of messages from citizens… asking for the evacuation of families,” it said on its Facebook website.
Haftar’s forces and the army said they were in full control of the February 17 Martyrs Brigade militia camp, a rival to the former general’s forces which operates in parts of Benghazi.
Special forces commander Wanis Bukhamda told Reuters that the airport area was under full army control after Ansar al-Sharia fled. “The terrorists have been expelled,” he said.
Three years after the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi, turmoil remains in the port city, home to several oil firms.
The plight of Benghazi underlines the central government’s inability to control rival armed factions that once fought Gaddafi and now battle over post-war spoils.
Clashes between rival militias have driven an estimated 287,000 people from their homes, including 100,000 who have fled the outskirts of Tripoli, according to the UN refugee agency.
Libya’s neighbors and Western powers fear the country is heading for full-blown civil war as the weak government is unable to challenge brigades of heavily armed former rebels who now defy the state’s authority.
The government’s grip on power across Libya has been sharply eroded by the seizure of the capital Tripoli by an armed group allied with the western city of Misrata, which has set up an alternative government and reinstated the former parliament, known as the General National Congress.
A parliament, elected in June, is recognized by the international community but contested by the militia controlling most of Tripoli, where an alliance of armed groups hold sway, and by the armed groups who dominate Benghazi.
Prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni and his elected parliament moved to the far eastern city of Tobruk after Tripoli was seized.