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Fighting between jihadists, Haftar's forces escalates in Benghazi

In the last week, Benghazi has seen a sharp increase in violence after the former Libyan general, Khalifa Haftar, began a renewed offensive with the Libyan army against jihadists in the city.

The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, the largest alliance of jihadist groups, met the offensive with harsh resistance. According to Reuters, 130 people have been killed in the last 10 days.

Al Arabiya reports that the fighting is now mainly taking place in the Ras Obeida district of Benghazi. Haftar's forces took the February 17th Martyrs Brigade base and pushed back jihadists near the Benina International Airport on Oct. 25.

However, several videos and photos have been released purportedly showing fighters from Ansar al Sharia, an al Qaeda-affiliated group in the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, inside the February 17th Martyrs Brigade base.

In some pictures, fighters are shown at the entrance of the base holding signs that are dated Oct. 25, 2014.

In other pictures released by online jihadists who support Ansar al Sharia, several vehicles can be seen that were allegedly captured from Haftar's fighters recently. The pictures are shown below.

Fighting is also taking place in the eastern Benghazi district of Garyounis, as a newly-released video shows a heavy firefight between Haftar's forces and Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council fighters.

Some reports claim that the leader of Ansar al Sharia, Mohammad al Zahawi, was killed in the recent fighting, but that is doubtful. The claims cannot be verified and no firm evidence has surfaced indicating that Zahawi has, in fact, been killed. Ansar al Sharia has not issued a statement confirming or denying these reports, and Zahawi has been reported killed before, only to later resurface.

Fighting in Benghazi

The recent fighting in Benghazi is just the latest violence to have rocked the city since the end of the civil war in 2011. In May of this year, Haftar launched a major offensive in the city to "cleanse" it of jihadists. The operation, dubbed "Operation Dignity," was initially successful but has since reached a bitter stalemate.

In July, the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council was able to overtake a Libyan special forces base in the city. On its official Twitter feed, Ansar al Sharia posted a video of its leader, Mohammad al Zahawi, discussing his group's "victory." The group also posted photos of the weapons, or "booty," it captured, as well as scenes from the assault on the base. [See LWJ's report, Ansar al Sharia, allies seize Libyan special forces base in Benghazi.]

According to a map made by Twitter analyst @MaliWitness and his colleague, Ansar al Sharia and Haftar's forces each control around half of Benghazi, with large parts also being contested.

Earlier this month, the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council was reportedly responsible for a series of suicide bombings in and around the city, including several at the Benina International Airport. Al Jazeera reported that up to four vehicle-borne explosive devices (VBIEDs) were used on the airport, which killed 40 Libyan troops. Four troops were also killed in a separate attack in the eastern part of Benghazi.

The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council

The Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), which is fighting against Haftar's forces, is an alliance of several jihadist groups in the city. The main four groups in the alliance are Ansar al Sharia, the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, Libya Shield 1, and the Rafallah al Sahati Brigades.

Ansar al Sharia, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group, is likely the overall leader of the alliance. The group gained widespread attention after its fighters took part in the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi.

The February 17th Martyrs Brigade is another large militia in Benghazi and was once considered an ally of both the Libyan government and the US in eastern Libya. The Brigade was also paid to provide security for the US Mission in Benghazi around the time of the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks.

Libya Shield 1, which was originally part of the larger Libya Shield Forces, is another militia within the BRSC. The Shield has been led by Wissam Bin Hamid, who was initially considered an American security ally in Benghazi, but failed to intervene on the night of the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack. He is currently fighting alongside Ansar al Sharia and has been featured in the group's videos and propaganda. [See LWJ reports: Ansar al Sharia ally a key figure in Benghazi security failures and Ansar al Sharia video features jihadist once thought to be US ally in Benghazi.]

The Rafallah al Sahati Brigade is the last major group in the BRSC. It is an Islamist brigade that has been closely allied with Ansar al Sharia.

[Source: By Caleb Weiss, The Long War Journal, NJ, 27Oct14]

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