A war plane attacked a port in Benghazi on Wednesday in a strike claimed by forces loyal to former general Khalifa Haftar, bringing their battle against Islamists to the heart of the eastern Libyan city.
A Reuters reporter near the port, which is not an oil installation, saw a warplane open fire several times, although it was unclear whether any harbour facilities were hit.
The port is the main gateway for wheat and fuel imports into eastern Libya, a country struggling with anarchy three years after the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi.
Saqer al-Jouroushi, head of Haftar’s air defence unit, has said an umbrella group of Islamist fighters, Majlis al-Shura, was using the port to bring in supplies and weapons.
“We warned the port manager that we will not allow ships to dock to supply Majlis al-Shura with weapons,” said Jouroushi, whose unit controls several planes from Libya’s air force.
He said the plane had deliberately missed the quay and had been issuing a final warning, but added that it would hit next time if another ship tried to offload weapons. Clashes in Benghazi have so far been mainly limited to the suburbs.
“We are in a state of war and Ansar al-Sharia and its allies are using the port to ship in arms against out troops,” he said, referring to an Islamist group blamed by Washington for an attack on the U.S. consulate in the city in 2012, during which the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed.
Three years after Gaddafi died during an uprising against his rule, Libya is divided. The government and elected parliament have relocated to Tobruk in the far east since losing control of the capital, Tripoli, where a rival government has been created by forces from the western city of Misrata.
Haftar has emerged as a renegade commander fighting Islamists and has recently entered into a frail alliance with the government in Tobruk.
Libya depends on foreign imports of food and consumer goods as the desert country does not have any large industry outside the key oil sector. However, shippers have become more reluctant to deal with Libya, some traders have said, and the attack on Benghazi port is only likely to heighten their concerns.