BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Heavy fighting erupted over the weekend between forces from Libya's recognised government & Islamist militants in Benghazi, killing at least six & heightening tensions in U.N. peace negotiations.
Benghazi is just one front in a wider conflict in Libya, where a battle between two rival governments & their armed allies is pushing the North African state to economic collapse four years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
At least six people were killed & ten wounded when fighting broke out on Saturday west of Benghazi between General Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army forces & fighters allied to Islamic State, a medical source & local residents said.
The fighting involved artillery shelling & air strikes, they said.
Mohamed Hejazi, spokesman for Haftar's forces, said they had launched a campaign against positions in Benghazi, which has been caught up in fighting for more than year.
Western governments see the best solution in a United Nations-backed peace deal to bring the two sides together in a united power-sharing agreement. But fighting & pressure from hardliners on both sides have complicated negotiations.
The United Nations & U.S & European envoys criticised the increase in hostilities just before the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, & urged the two factions to complete the U.N.-backed deal. U.N. envoy Bernardino Leon had set Sunday as a deadline for negotiations to conclude.
"This escalation of violence underscores the urgent need to complete the political dialogue process as shortly as possible," a U.S.-EU joint statement said.
Four years after their uprising toppled Gaddafi, two loose factions of former rebels & their political allies who once fought together have turned against each other in an battle for control of the OPEC state.
Tripoli was taken over a year ago by Libya Dawn, an alliance of Islamist-leaning brigades & former rebels from the powerful city of Misrata who set up a self-declared government in the capital & reinstated a former parliament known as the General National Congress or GNC.
Since then, Libya's internationally recognised government & the elected parliament, the House of Representatives, has operated out of the east of the country, backed by Haftar's forces & a loose alliance of other armed factions.
Islamist militants & migrant smugglers have taken advantage of the turmoil to gain ground even as the United Nations & the European Union warn the country is edging toward becoming a failed state.
U.N. talks are continuing in the Moroccan city of Skhirat, yet both factions from the House of Representatives & the GNC Tripoli parliament warned of growing tensions after the increase in Benghazi fighting.
"Our team in Skhirat is studying suspending our participation in the peace talks because of the military escalation in Benghazi," Abdulrahman Swahili, a GNC parliament member told Nabaa TV.
(Reporting by Ayman El-Warfalli in Benghazi; Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Tom Heneghan)