Benghazi celebrates after jihadists driven out

by Ibrahim Abdallah

Benghazi (Libya) (AFP) - Forced from his neighbourhood in Libya's Benghazi three years ago, Said al-Mabruk is looking forward to going back after jihadist forces were driven from the city.

"I will finally be able to go home. I can die in peace now," the 72-year-old said after military strongman Khalifa Haftar announced that Islamist fighters had been ousted from Libya's second city.

Like thousands of his fellow Benghazi residents, Mabruk took to the streets to celebrate the victory late on Wednesday.

Hundreds of cars paraded through the city in a deafening concert of blaring music and horns, under a night sky lit up by fireworks.

But the celebration did not come without a cost, with many in the city having lost loved ones in the battle. Mabruk "paid a heavy price", he said, with his son killed while fighting on the side of Haftar's forces.

Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army allied with Libya's eastern-based government, launched his operation to retake Benghazi in 2014, three years after the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

In the years after the uprising, the Mediterranean coastal city fell under the sway of rival militia forces who divided it into fiefdoms.

Jihadist militias, including some with links to the Islamic State group or Al-Qaeda, were finally confined by Haftar's offensive to two central neighbourhoods, Al-Sabri and Soug al-Hout.

After weeks of heavy fighting, Haftar announced "the liberation of Benghazi from terrorism" on Wednesday with the two districts retaken, promising "a new era of peace, security, reconciliation".

- 'Time to breathe now' -

LNA forces were preventing most residents from returning to the retaken neighbourhoods until they could be checked for booby traps, but Alia Hamad was among the lucky few.

She was able briefly to enter her home in Soug al-Hout under the protection of soldiers.

"We were able to recover our documents and most precious things," she said.

Hamad said she hoped that with the battle over the focus could turn to "the resolution of the political crisis and improving living conditions for citizens".

The rest of Libya has fared little better than Benghazi since Kadhafi's ouster, with rival forces battling for power, influence and territory.

The eastern-based government is opposed in the capital Tripoli by the UN-backed Government of National Accord, which despite strong international support has failed to assert its control over the entire country.

Clashes between armed groups are frequent even around Tripoli, where five people were killed at a nearby beach this week after fighting erupted between rival militias that control the capital's Mitiga airport.

Libya's economy also lies in ruins despite its vast oil reserves, with many citizens cash-strapped and instability causing prices to skyrocket.

In Benghazi, 26-year-old Amal al-Gamati was hoping for some respite.

"It's time to breathe a bit now," she said. "It has been three years of war and terror... We're sick of war. We need to rebuild our country."

The rebuilding was likely to take years, but signs of what may come were visible at a newly opened commercial centre in Benghazi. Luna Park features restaurants and shops spread around an open space.

Sipping coffee at one of its cafes, 20-year-old Sawsan said she felt "safer".

"We were afraid of going out without covering our heads," she said.