Benghazi: Islamists Blamed for U.S. Ambassador's Death Defeated by Former Qaddafi General

A Libyan man and boy wave their national flag as they celebrate while members of the Salah Bou-Haliqa brigade, which is loyal to the self-styled Libyan National Army of strongman Khalifa Haftar, arrive in the eastern city of Benghazi, Libya, June 5. AFP PHOTO / Abdullah DOMA

Libya's renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, a former general of Muammar el-Qaddafi's, has declared that the embattled city of Benghazi is clear of Islamist militias—some of which are accused of orchestrating the death of American Ambassador Christopher Stevens in 2012—after three years of street fighting.

Appearing on local television in stark white military fatigues and gold brocade and draped with medals, Haftar—recently elevated to the rank of field marshal by Libya's eastern parliament—announced the end of his military operation to expunge Islamist militias from Benghazi.

"Your armed forces declare to you the liberation of Benghazi from terrorism, a full liberation and a victory of dignity," Haftar said. "Benghazi has entered into a new era of safety and peace," he added, according to Reuters.

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Haftar's Karama (Dignity) Operation was launched in 2014 in a bid to rid Benghazi of its patchwork of Islamist militias loosely coalesced around the Benghazi Revolutionary Council, which held sway in the eastern city. The Libyan National Army (LNA), the name given to Haftar's force, has said more than 5,000 of its fighters have been killed during the battles.

As the euphoria of post-revolutionary Libya in 2011 gave way to internecine conflict, bombings and the assassination of local security officials in Benghazi, Haftar clashed with brigades that had fought against Qaddafi in the NATO backed intervention.

Haftar's opponents, particularly the U.N.-supported government in Tripoli, have accused him of trying to usher in a military government in Libya or facilitate a return of Qaddafi regime loyalists.

But one Benghazi resident said that over the course of the last three years, locals had on the whole rallied behind the operation to remove Islamist militias and restore security.

"It has been difficult for people to lose their homes [in the fighting]," he tells Newsweek on condition of anonymity. "But we say we have to remove them from the city because they were against everything: democracy, civil life, elections and the rule of law."

He adds that before the beginning of Haftar's offensive, life in Benghazi was plagued by daily violence. "When I would go around the city, it was like hell. I would hear explosions from time to time and then the constant news of the assassinations of police and military figures."

Despite the announcement by Haftar, some fighting has continued in Benghazi's coastal Sabri district. On Wednesday, the LNA used heavy artillery to blast through pockets of resistance, and the sounds of fighting continued to be heard from the area Thursday, Newsweek was told.

Many of the forces battling against the LNA had been aligned with the al-Qaeda linked Ansar al-Sharia and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The former disbanded this year, essentially surrendering to the onslaught from Haftar's forces, while the latter expanded and then shrunk across Libya from 2014 to late 2016.

The U.S. has blamed the assault on the Benghazi diplomatic compound in 2012 which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on Ansar al-Sharia, and following the attack, the State Department listed the group as a terrorist entity.