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Libya accuses rogue general of leading coup in Benghazi

Libya's government accused an "outlaw" retired general and his irregular forces of trying to carry out a coup as they fight to crush militants in the restive eastern city of Benghazi.

BENGHAZI, Libya: Libya's government accused an "outlaw" retired general and his irregular forces on Saturday of trying to carry out a coup as they fight to crush militants in the restive eastern city of Benghazi.

Khalifa Haftar, who lead ground forces in the 2011 uprising that toppled Moamer Gadhafi, used warplanes and helicopters Friday to support an offensive in pitched battles that killed 37 people.

Reacting to his vow to continue fighting until Benghazi is "purged of terrorists," the army announced a no-fly zone over the port city and suburbs, vowing to shoot down any aircraft that defies the ban.

The government, parliament and army charged that Haftar's operation was tantamount to a coup against the central authorities.

It is "an action outside state legitimacy and a coup d'etat," said a joint statement read on state television by Nuri Abu Sahmein, the head of the General National Congress.

"All those who took part in this coup bid will be prosecuted," said Abu Sahmein, flanked by recently appointed Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani and armed forces chief of staff Abdessalam Jadallah al-Salihin.

Haftar's threat to purge Benghazi was an affront to the authorities, who have struggled to stomp out lawlessness in the North African nation, which is awash with weapons and effectively ruled by a patchwork of former rebels.

Once seen as heroes, ex-rebels, particularly Islamists, have been blamed for attacks have killed dozens of members of security forces, judges and foreigners in Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 revolt.

Meanwhile, a tentative calm was shattered Saturday afternoon when a war plane bombed an Islamist position in the northwest of the city, one of the ex-rebels said.

"We fired at the plane which missed its target," said the source, adding that there were no casualties.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the raid which came after Haftar spokesman Colonel Mohammad Hijazi advised residents in western and southern districts of Benghazi to evacuate their homes.

Earlier this year Haftar caused a stir when he announced an "initiative" aimed at suspending the interim government and parliament.

That sparked rumours on social media that a coup might be in the offing, but the government was quick to quash them and insist it was in control.

The army says Haftar is backed by tribes, army defectors and ex-rebels who are opposed to the central government.

On Saturday the army's high command declared all of Benghazi and its suburbs a "no fly zone until further notice," state-run Lana news agency said.

"All military planes flying over the city will be shot down by army units... and units of the revolutionaries (ex-rebels)," it said.

It is not clear if the fledgling army, which is still trying to bolster its capacity, has the means to carry out that threat.

The health ministry said 37 people were killed and 139 wounded in Friday's clashes which wound down after Haftar's forces pulled out of Benghazi.

The violence came weeks after the government acknowledged for the first time the existence of "terrorist groups" in Libya and said it was mobilising against them.

And it comes a fortnight after jihadist gunmen, including from Ansar Sharia, stormed police headquarters in Benghazi, triggering fighting that killed nine soldiers.

Haftar's forces on Friday pounded former rebel groups, focusing in particular on Ansar Sharia, an organisation designated by the United States as a terrorist group, the army said.

The offensive also comes at a time of high political tensions in Libya where Islamists and liberals are in a tug-of-war, particularly after the disputed election this month of Thani, who is backed by Islamists.

Haftar defected from Gadhafi’s forces in the late 1980s and spent nearly 20 years in the United States before returning home to join the uprising. He has been accused of being in the pay of the Americans.

In other developments, voting was underway in Tripoli on Saturday for local councils to replace those formed after the uprising, with an average turnout at polling stations after a lacklustre campaign.

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