Libya closes Benghazi port amid fighting with militants

Libya closes Benghazi port amid fighting with militants
The major Libyan commercial port of Benghazi has been closed due to ongoing fighting between Islamist militants and pro-government forces struggling to retake the area.

"All ship movements and discharging of imports have been stopped," a port official told Reuters on Tuesday. The Benghazi port is a vital terminal for eastern Libya as it serves for oil exports and imports of food and international goods.

This comes after fierce fighting erupted in the city on Monday with pro-government forces launching an attack on areas held by the Islamist militants.

The attack launched by forces loyal to retired general Khalifa Haftar backed by army units, was to "clear the zone of armed Islamist groups", Colonel Ahmed al-Mesmari, armed forces spokesman, said, Reuters reported.

Earlier, the army had asked the residents of the district near the port to evacuate before a military operation to avoid casualties. Dozens of people left the city. However, many had nowhere to go and joined the security forces in the fight against the militants.

Last week the pro-government forces recaptured territories in south and east Benghazi, including army camps seized by the Islamists in July.

Smoke billows from buildings during an attack by the pro-government Libyan forces on districts held by Islamist militias on November 3, 2014 around the port of eastern Libya's restive city of Benghazi. (AFP Photo)

General Haftar launched a pre-emptive assault against militia bases associated with several Islamist groups in Benghazi in May. He blamed them for the constant bombings and murders in the east of the country in recent years. Then in Tripoli he launched an attack on the parliament building against what he called the "Islamist-dominated" government of the time. Now, Libya's new parliament, the House of Representatives, has given General Haftar its backing.

Islamist militias now control large parts of the country as Libya plunged into chaos following the 2011 revolution. The country is divided between two rival governments, with disparate tribes, militias and political factions fighting for power in the country.

Among the Islamist groups is Ansar al-Sharia, which has declared a caliphate in the area of the city of Derna. This group is considered as a terrorist organization in Europe and in the US.

At least 250 people have now been killed in government-backed operations started in October to defeat the Islamists, according to medical sources.

The internationally-recognized and newly-elected government had to flee from the capital Tripoli to the eastern town of Tobruk close to the Egyptian border after militias took control of the capital in July. It aims to relocate to Benghazi soon once army units restore security there, its deputy speaker said on Tuesday.

"We plan to move there soon, maybe in one or two weeks," Deputy Speaker Emhemed Shoaib told Reuters. "We need to speak to the army about the security situation."

Benghazi was the city where mass protests against Gaddafi erupted in 2011 and escalated into an armed revolt that toppled him.