Libya’s army clashed with Islamist militants in the eastern city of Benghazi early on Wednesday and three soldiers were shot dead, security and medical officials said.
Western powers, worried about stability in Libya, have promised more aid to the army to curb former fighters and militants who helped topple veteran ruler Muammar Gaddafi two years ago, but have since challenged the OPEC country’s government.
Fighting broke out on Monday between army special forces and members of militant group Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, killing at least nine people before the Islamists retreated from their main base.
Gun battles erupted again in three parts of the port city in the early hours of Wednesday. They began when members of Ansar al-Sharia threw a grenade at a patrol of special forces, a security official said, though he later retracted this and said it was not clear who was behind the attack.
The security situation in Libya’s second biggest city has sharply deteriorated in the past few months. Islamists run their own checkpoints, and assassinations and bombings happen daily.
Islamist militants, including some from Ansar al-Sharia, had been seen massing outside Benghazi, where the army was rushing reinforcements in a convoy, residents said. But the militants later left the area and calm returned to the city.
Ansar al-Sharia was blamed for an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012 when the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed.
The chaos in Libya is worrying its North African neighbors and the NATO powers that backed the uprising which led to the fall of Gaddafi in one of the Arab Spring revolts.
But popular anger is also growing against the militiamen and former fighters, and Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s fragile government hopes to use that discontent to wrest back control from armed groups.
Hoping to co-opt former fighters, the government hired militia groups to provide security. But they remain loyal to their commanders or tribes, and often clash in disputes over territory or personal feuds.
Oil exports are down to a fraction of capacity due to seizures of oilfields and ports by militias, tribesmen and civil servants demanding more political rights or higher pay.