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Libya's extremists tighten grip over Benghazi

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CAIRO (AP) — An umbrella group for eastern Libya's extremist militias announced Wednesday that it had overrun three more army bases in the eastern city of Benghazi and seized large amounts of heavy weapons, including armored vehicles, as they tightened their grip on the country's second city.

The Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council, composed of extremist militias like Ansar al-Shariah, posted pictures of its leaders posing in front of tanks, multiple rocket launchers, and artillery they claimed to have seized from the bases they overran.

The pictures could not be independently verified but in the past weeks the militants have seized several other bases belonging to the remnants of the Libyan army. An official in the city confirmed the militias' recent victories and said they were now shelling the army's remaining strongholds on the outskirts of the city.

Ansar al-Shariah is branded a terrorist organization by Washington and is accused of orchestrating the deadly assault on US mission in Benghazi in 2012 killing four Americans including US Ambassador Chris Stevens.

The Islamist militias launched a counteroffensive after units loyal to Gen. Khalifa Hifter, attempted to dislodge them from the city months earlier.

Despite support from several army units, including the elite special forces, Hifter's troops have largely been driven out of the city and are now cornered in the Benina airport outside the city.

The security official said that the militias have been pounding the airport with grad rockets. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Hifter's campaign announced in May has upset the delicate balance of power in Libya where militias formed to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi in 2011 hold most of the weapons.

The militias have chosen different sides in the conflict and are now squaring off against each other across the country. Tripoli's airport has been severely damaged after the Islamist-allied militia from the city of Misrata attacked the militia from the mountain town of Zintan holding it.

Lacking an effective army and police force after Gadhafi's overthrow, Libya's transitional leadership put all militias on the government payroll granting them all a degree of legitimacy and impunity.

The fighting in Tripoli started last month and has prompted diplomats, foreigners and Libyans to flee for the Tunisian border.

More than 230 people killed and nearly 1000 injured in the ongoing battles in Tripoli and Benghazi. Meanwhile Libya's newly elected parliament, dominated by non-Islamist independents, convened in far eastern city of Tobruk in defiance to calls by Islamists to hold opening session in Tripoli.

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