Libya’s army claimed to have wrestled back Gawarsha, one of the last neighbourhoods of Benghazi still under the control of hardline Islamist groups it has been fighting since 2014.
Fierce fighting has raged during the last week for Gawarsha’s main checkpoint, controlled by Al-Qaeda aligned Ansar al-Sharia which is part of coalition Benghazi Shura Revolutionaries Council.
On Friday a car bomb targeting the army’s Brigade 302 exploded killing three soldiers and injuring 25 others. On the same frontline two others were killed in a landmine.
Despite the fatalities, the army, under the control of General Khalifa Haftar, said it had retaken the southwestern district.
“We dealt them a firm blow, it’s a major victory,” Khalifa al-Obeidi, head of Haftar’s media office, told AFP Thursday. “We are presently pursuing terrorists who are entrenched one kilometre east.”
The army’s media office said the seizure of Gawarsha gate was an important “moral victory” for their forces and a “massive blow to the terrorists”.
Libya Channel correspondents on the ground said Thursday morning the army advanced on Gawarsha, with fierce clashes erupting at the end of the Chinese housing project. The fighting also spread to the road to Ganfuda.
By Friday our correspondents said the checkpoint had yet to be fully controlled by the army but added that forces were “very close”.
Clashes at the strategic gate continued in the afternoon with the airforce launching fresh airstrikes on the area at 7.30pm Libyan time.
It’s capture would mean that army had successfully pushed the Benghazi Shura Revolutionaries Council into the last remaining areas of Ganfuda and Garwasha and to the east, in the coastal district of Sabri.
It would be the most significant win since the retaking of nearby Garyunis beginning of July.
Facing another set back, Shura Council commander Wissem Bin Hamid, released a televised speech Friday dubbing General Haftar a “traitor” and claiming he was working as an agent for the French “crusaders”.
His comments came just days after allied armed group Benghazi Defense Brigades shot down one of Haftar’s helicopters, killing three French special forces troops, that Paris admitted had been in the area assisting the army in its battle against extremists.
“This french intervention, which came to rescue the traitor agent Hiftar’s militias, shows very clearly the truth of his Dignity campaign, which is attempting to bring the old regime back,” said the militia commander, dressed in civilian clothes.
He called the actions of Haftar and the french a “conspiracy” against the revolutionaries and thanked Libya’s Grand Mufti for issuing a fatwa calling on people to fight the two forces.
“The best evidence of [his betrayal] is the killing of your sons and daughters by the gangsters of internal security, who threw them in the garbage,” he added in a veiled reference to 21 July discovery of 14 bodies in Benghazi’s south central district of Laithi, which is currently army territory.
Laithi had been under the control of Islamic State fighters and the Shura Council for almost a year and half before it was “liberated”in February by Haftar’s forces.
All the corspes found last week in a mass grave were handcuffed, with their legs bound, and bullet wounds to their heads. The bodies also carried the signs of torture.
Eyewitnesses said the were bodies were not decomposed and were killed recently.
Hiftar’s spokespersons did not comment but critics pointed the finger of blame at the army that they said had been responsible for extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the past.
Walid al-Urfi, Information Director at the Criminal Investigation Department in Benghazi confirmed that investigations into the mass grave were ongoing.
He said that all crimes, including the bombing and targeting of security forces and civilians were also under investigation.
Colonel Mahdi al-Baghathi, the Minister of Defense of Tripoli-based Government of National Accord hat Haftar does not recognize, condemned the killings saying it brought “shame on Benghazi”. He said the the GNA had instructed the security agencies to look into the mass killings.