TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Explosions rocked the eastern city of Benghazi on Monday as clashes broke out between army units loyal to a renegade general military and Islamist militias, leaving at least eight people dead and 15 wounded, officials said.
Army helicopters bombed camps and suspected Islamist hideouts , while militiamen responded by firing Rocket Propelled Grenades, anti-aircraft guns and attacking military units allied with Gen. Khalifa Hifter.
A former Gadhafi-era army chief, Hifter has rallied support among the country's weakened military, anti-Islamist politicians, tribes and diplomats and vowed to crush Islamist militias he blames for Libya's instability.
The gunbattles started late Sunday and continued overnight, forcing the Education Ministry to cancel high school exams.
Witnesses said, the clashes expanded to the outskirts of Benghazi University and spread to different districts where militia camps and army troops are located. Houses in at least four districts near the clashes were hit by cross fire and some were hit by the grenades, witnesses said.
There was panic in Benghazi southern and southwestern districts where citizens set up checkpoints to prevent rival forces from taking shelter inside their buildings while shops were closed, witnesses said.
The clashes left eight dead and 15 wounded, according the spokeswoman of al-Jalaa hospital in Benghazi Fadia al-Barghathi.
The military officials are also saying that helicopter gunships flown by pilots loyal to the Hifter have been bombing the base of the February 17 militia and camps belonging to the militant Ansar al-Shariah group, all located on the city's western outskirts.
An Ansar al-Shariah spokesperson said that its forces have not yet been involved in any of the fighting and that the Feb. 17 militia was being shelled.
Ansar al-Shariah has been connected to the deadly assault on U.S. post in Benghazi which left four Americans dead, including US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.
The officials say gunbattles started early Monday when an Islamist militia attacked an army unit known as Al-Zawiya Martyrs Brigade, which had declared its alliance with Hifter's so-called "Dignity Operation" against Islamic groups when it began nearly three weeks ago. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.