Benghazi - Fierce fighting between Islamists and a rogue Libyan general killed 16 people in Benghazi on Monday, triggering fears of an all-out war as hospitals urged citizens to donate blood.
Officials at two hospitals in the eastern city, the birthplace of the NATO-backed uprising that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, said at least 11 soldiers and five civilians were killed, and 26 people wounded.
An air force commander said the clashes erupted when three Islamist groups, including Ansar al-Sharia, attacked a base of elite forces who support the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar.
Images posted on the Internet showed army assault helicopters firing missiles at suspected Islamist targets.
The fighting was the bloodiest since 76 people were killed in mid-May when Haftar unleashed an offensive dubbed “Operation Dignity” to purge Libya of Islamists he brands “terrorists”.
It triggered panic in Benghazi, Libya's second city where hospitals appealed to people to donate blood and doctors called on the combatants to spare the lives of civilians.
“Benghazi is suffering, people are fed up, spare them,” the head of the Benghazi Medical Centre, Doctor Leila Buigiguis, said in remarks broadcast on television.
The education ministry closed schools, forcing the postponement of scheduled final exams.
Residents cowered indoors and many shops and businesses were closed as gunfire rang out and explosions shook Benghazi, witnesses said.
They said some families were trapped in the western neighbourhood of Sidi Freij, a stronghold of Ansar al-Sharia.
Haftar spokesman Mohamed al-Hijazi called on residents in combat zones across Benghazi to evacuate, in an apparent warning that the fighting could escalate.
Colonel Saad al-Werfelli, who commands the Benghazi air force base, said the jihadists “bombarded base 21 early on Monday, killing and wounding soldiers (from the elite unit) who were trapped inside”.
The air force retaliated by launching strikes on the assailants, added Werfelli, who along with the elite forces backs Haftar's campaign against Islamists accused of repeated violence in Benghazi.
The latest bloodshed comes a day after Haftar's forces launched fresh air raids on Islamists in Benghazi, with one strike targeting a meeting of Ansar al-Sharia, one of his aides said.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has urged Libyans to fight Haftar and his so-called National Army, labelling the ex-army general an “enemy of Islam”.
Authorities have denounced Haftar as an outlaw, but after thousands of Libya rallied for his support he said he has a mandate from the people to pursue his offensive to crush “terrorism”.
Since the 2011, Libya has been rocked by lawlessness with near-daily attacks blamed on radical Islamists targeting security forces in Benghazi.
The interim authorities, caught in their own power struggle, have been unable to stamp out the violence in the absence of a strong army and police force.
Ansar al-Sharia, classified as a terrorist group by the United States, was backed by the February 17 Brigades of ex-rebel leader Rafallah al-Sahati and the Libya Shield Force Islamist groups, said Werfelli.
The powerful February 17 group of ex-rebels denied any involvement in Monday's fighting, in a statement posted on Facebook.
The group of ex-rebels is suspected of having strong ties with Ansar al-Sharia, which has threatened Haftar that he could end up like Gaddafi, killed by rebels eight months after the 2011 uprising.
Haftar, 71, lived in exile in the United States before returning home to command ground forces in the uprising.
Last week he said in a statement read on a private television that he would not rest until he has purged Libya of Islamists.
“No steps backwards until the country is liberated, security and stability restored and freedom and democracy established,” he said.
But many in Libya doubt that he will have any impact on the Islamists and question his real intentions, with his detractors claiming on social media forums that he “speaks more than he shoots”.