Libyan government accuses 'outlaw' general of attempting coup in Benghazi

Libya's government accused an "outlaw" retired general and his irregular forces Saturday of trying to carry out a coup as they fight to crush Islamist militants in the restive eastern city of Benghazi.

Khalifa Haftar, who lead ground forces in the 2011 uprising that toppled Moamer Kadhafi, used warplanes and helicopters Friday to support an offensive in pitched battles that killed 37 people.

In response to his vow to continue his campaign until Benghazi is "purged of terrorists," the army announced a no-fly zone over the port city and vowed to shoot down any aircraft that defies the ban.

The government, parliament and army charged that Haftar's operation was tantamount to a coup against the central authorities.

It is "an action outside state legitimacy and a coup d'etat," they said in a joint statement read on state television by Nuri Abu Sahmein, the head of the General National Congress.

"All those who took part in this coup bid will be prosecuted," said Abu Sahmein, who was flanked by recently appointed Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani and armed forces chief of staff Abdessalam Jadallah al-Salihin.

Haftar threat to purge Benghazi was an affront to the authorities, who have struggled to stomp out lawlessness in the North African nation, which is awash with weapons and effectively ruled by a patchwork of former rebels.

Once seen as heroes, ex-rebels, particularly Islamists, have been blamed for attacks have killed dozens of members of security forces, judges and foreigners in Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 revolt.

- 'No-fly zone' -

Earlier this year Haftar stirred passions when he announced in an online video an "initiative" under which he said the interim government and parliament would be suspended.

That sparked rumours on social media that a coup might be in the offing, but the government was quick to quash them and insist it was in control.

The army says Haftar is backed tribes, officers who defected from the army as well ex-rebels who are opposed to the central government.

Earlier Saturday, Haftar spokesman Colonel Mohammad Hijazi called on people living in the western Benghazi district of Guwersha and the southern one of Sidi Fradj to evacuate their homes.

He did not say if this was the prelude to attacks on those neighbourhoods, which are known to be bastions of the Islamists.

The army's high command upped the ante by declaring all of Benghazi and its suburbs a "no fly zone until further notice," state-run Lana news agency said.

"All military planes flying over the city will be shot down by army units... and units of the revolutionaries (ex-rebels)," it said.

It is not clear if the army has the means to carry out its threat, which came as local sources said mediation was underway to try to prevent new fighting in Benghazi.

The health ministry said 37 people were killed and 139 wounded in Friday's clashes.

The violence came weeks after the government acknowledged for the first time the existence of "terrorist groups" in Libya and said it was mobilising against them.

It also comes two weeks after jihadist gunmen, including Ansar Sharia, stormed police headquarters in Benghazi, triggering fighting that killed nine soldiers.

Haftar's forces Friday pounded former rebel groups, focusing in particular on Ansar Sharia, an organisation designated by the United States as a terrorist group, the army said.

The offensive also comes at a time of high political tensions in Libya where Islamists and liberals are in a tug-of-war, particularly after the disputed election this month of Thani, who is backed by Islamists.

Haftar defected from Kadhafi's forces in the late 1980s and spent nearly 20 years in the United States before returning home to join the uprising. He has been accused of being in the pay of the Americans.

In other developments, voting was underway in Tripoli Saturday for local councils to replace those formed after the uprising, with an average turnout at polling stations after a lacklustre campaign