March 18, 2017 / 3:56 PM / 8 months ago

East Libyan army takes rivals' final holdout in southwest Benghazi

BENGHAZI, Libya, March 18 (Reuters) - East Libyan forces said they captured the final holdout of Islamist-led rivals in the southwest of Benghazi on Saturday, ending weeks of resistance by fighters camped in a group of tower blocks.

The eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) has been waging a campaign in Libya’s second biggest city for nearly three years and still faces pockets of resistance in two northern neighbourhoods, despite making big gains since early last year.

Milad al-Zwai, spokesman for the LNA’s special forces, said the siege at the “12 blocks” ended when rival fighters tried to escape at dawn. He said 23 of them had been killed and six arrested while five LNA troops were killed and six wounded.

Dozens of family members had also been in the besieged buildings and an unknown number were detained by the LNA. It was not immediately clear whether any of the LNA’s opponents or their families had escaped.

The LNA said it had lost a MiG-21 fighter jet over the Benghazi district of Sabri on Saturday, though the pilot had ejected. It still faces armed opposition in the northern neighbourhoods of Sabri and Souq al-Hout.

LNA leader Khalifa Haftar launched his Dignity Operation in Benghazi in May 2014, saying he wanted to rid the city of Islamist militants following a series of bombings and assassinations.

Some of his opponents have openly acknowledged their allegiance to Islamic State or al Qaeda-linked groups but others say they are fighting to prevent a return to authoritarian rule in Libya.

Haftar has rejected a beleaguered U.N.-backed government in Tripoli that was meant to reunite the country after it split between eastern and western based governments and military factions in 2014.

On Friday, there were demonstrations against militia rule in central Tripoli after unusually violent clashes this week, and some voiced support for Haftar before the protests were broken up amid gunfire.

Haftar, who many suspect of seeking national rule, addressed the capital’s residents on local TV after the protests saying, “your armed forces will not abandon you, and we will be by your side until Tripoli is returned to the homeland.”

A group of 22 militias based in Tripoli issued a statement on Friday reasserting their opposition to the LNA leader. (Writing by Aidan Lewis; editing by David Clarke)

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