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‘Battle for Egypt’: Cairo warplanes ‘bomb Libya’s Islamists’ – report

‘Battle for Egypt’: Cairo warplanes ‘bomb Libya’s Islamists’ – report
Egyptian warplanes have reportedly begun bombing Benghazi targets in an attempt to pry Islamist militants away from strongholds in eastern Libya, AP reports, citing unnamed officials. It comes amid reports of a chemical storage tank bombed in the area.

READ MORE: France urges new Libya intervention, calls it 'terrorist hub' on Europe's doorstep

The strikes, which reportedly took place in Benghazi on Wednesday, have not been officially verified. However, they were confirmed by two unnamed Egyptian government officials who spoke to AP.

According to the agency’s sources, the strikes are part of a larger campaign organized by Egypt, which will last between three to six months.

So far, nine people have been killed in the bombings, according to a local hospital.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s spokesman, Alaa Youssef, denied that Egypt’s planes were striking targets in Libya, according to an official statement posted on the country’s state-run news agency.

However, AP’s sources offered a conflicting version of the events.

The airstrikes were requested by the internationally recognized Libyan administration, the officials said. The country’s government is no longer operating out of the Libyan capital Tripoli, however, as they were driven out by militants associated with various Islamist groups. Instead, the administration now governs out of Tobruk in eastern Libya.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A rebel fighter looks at a burning vehicle after an air strike, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011 (Reuters / Goran Tomasevic)

The sources said that newly trained Libyan troops on the ground will ultimately take part in efforts to combat the Islamists, though they are not doing so just yet. Despite reportedly coordinating with a new Libyan chief of staff, the officials also stated specifically that the bombing campaign is in the interest of Egypt.

“This is a battle for Egypt not Libya,” one of the quoted officials said. “Egypt was the first country in the region to warn against terrorism and it is also the first to fight it.”

READ MORE: Libyan crisis pushes number of refugees to 300,000 - UN

Although Egyptian planes may be involved in the bombing, Libyan lawmaker Tareq al-Jourshi said they were “rented” by the country and Libyan pilots were flying them.

News of the purported air campaign also comes as Reuters reported rocket attacks against a chemical storage tank in Benghazi. The tank – which housed various pipeline cleaning chemicals for the Libyan oil company al-Jour – was struck by rockets that were likely launched by a plane, according to the deputy head of Libya’s oil workers union, Saad al-Fakhri.

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Plumes of smoke rise in the sky after a rocket hit a fuel storage tank near the airport road in Tripoli, during clashes between rival militias July 28, 2014 (Reuters / Ismail Zitouny)

Meanwhile, an unnamed Islamist militia commander told AP that there is evidence showing Egyptian warplanes are taking off from another city and bombing various targets.

“We have photographs of the Egyptian warplanes and Egyptian naval forces stationed in eastern cities,” he said. “The Egyptians are bombing us day and night and only want to seed divisions among us here.”

Despite denying its involvement on state media, Egypt has in the past expressed its backing for the administration now in Tobruk, arguing the Islamist factions fighting for control of the neighboring country present an explicit threat to its national security.

These militias – which helped bring down Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 – have expanded to fill in the vacuum created by the new central government’s lacking military and police forces, and have pressed forward with attempts to take control of the country themselves.