At least 15 people were killed and 42 injured as fighting escalated Monday between the forces of a former Libyan army general, Khalifa Haftar, and Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi, according to the North African country’s official LANA news agency.
Three militant groups, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al Sharia, bombarded an air base early Monday, "killing and wounding soldiers who were trapped inside," local Air Force commander Saad Werfelli told journalists.
The death toll from the fighting was the highest since mid-May, when 76 people were killed when Haftar's so-called National Army unleashed its "Operation Dignity” to fight terrorism and armed Islamist militias in Libya.
The attacks were retaliation for air raids launched by Haftar's forces that targeted the headquarters of a militant groups in the Benghazi neighborhoods of Hawari and Gunfuda, including a venue where Ansar al Sharia was convening on Sunday.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a North African offshoot of Al Qaeda, posted a statement Sunday on a number of militant web forums calling on Libyans to fight Haftar's forces, dubbing him "an enemy of Islam."
"We call on you to unite to remove the symbol of treachery and apostasy, Khalifa Haftar, and the supporters of [the late Libyan president] Moammar Kadafi who are under his command," the statement said.
Haftar's "war against Islam on the pretext of fighting terrorism" was only possible due to "American complicity" in the military-led ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The statement concluded by warning Libyans that Haftar was carrying out a "crusader plan against Islamic sharia law."
Libya has been struggling to contain insurgents and rival militias scattered across the country since Kadafi was forced from power in 2011.
The elected General National Congress, which contains a majority of Islamists, has used some of the Islamist militias to help secure areas across the nation.
Haftar has demanded the legislative body be dissolved and replaced with a military council until parliamentary elections could be held in August.
The congress has rejected Haftar's demands and pursued plans to form a new cabinet under Prime Minister Ahmed Matiq, who was elected in a heavily disputed session last month.
Libya’s interim premier, Abdullah Thinni, has indicated support for Haftar's operation -- "so long as no political gains interfere in freeing Libya from terrorism" -- and is refusing to hand over power.