Islamist militias on Thursday claimed to have taken control of Libya's second largest city, Benghazi, after defeating army units, taking over military barracks and seizing tanks, rockets and hundreds of boxes of ammunition.
The armed groups that overran Benghazi belong to a newly formed umbrella group called Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries, made up of multiple armed factions led by Islamist commanders. Among the factions is Ansar al-Shariah, the group accused by the United States of leading a Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a diplomatic facility in the city that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Amid Thursday’s announcement, fighting in the nation’s capital, Tripoli, prompted a wave of evacuations by foreign nationals, diplomats and Libyans.
Tunisian officials said Wednesday that they were struggling to cope with a sudden influx of thousands of Libyan nationals taking refuge from the violence. Tunisian state media said the number of Libyan refugees had skyrocketed by more than 10,000 in a span of just 12 hours, joining thousands who had arrived earlier.
The extent of the militias' control over Benghazi was not clear. On Thursday, the city's streets were nearly empty, with residents staying indoors and shops closed — but with also no sign of checkpoints by either armed group members or security forces. The main police headquarters was still smoldering after it was hit by militia shelling a day earlier, and smoke rose from the barracks of the Special Forces, once the strongest security body in the city until it was overrun by militiamen.
The militia victories are part of a powerful backlash by Islamist armed groups in Libya after setbacks earlier this year. In Tripoli, rival armed groups have been battling for weeks in an attempt to seize the nation’s international airport, in the capital's worst fighting since the 2011 civil war that ousted strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
Spain announced Thursday it was pulling its ambassador and most embassy staff out of Tripoli, a step already taken by the United States. China has chartered a Greek vessel to evacuate hundreds of Chinese citizens, and the Philippines is working to get out some 13,000 Filipino workers inside Libya.
The militiamen's sweep through Benghazi was a heavy reversal for Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general who for months had led army units and other fighters in a self-declared campaign aimed at stamping out armed Islamic militant groups.
After forces loyal to him lost their bases inside Benghazi the past days, Haftar’s loyalists now appeared to only hold the airport on the city's edges.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press