TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — An Al-Qaida-inspired group on Tuesday vowed to fight a Libyan renegade general who is waging an offensive against Islamists, accusing him of being an "American agent" who wants to replicate last year's military overthrow of an elected government in neighboring Egypt.
Mohammed al-Zahawi, the leader of Ansar al-Shariah, said in a televised press conference that his group would combat Gen. Khalifa Hifter's so-called "Dignity Operation," which began more than 10 days ago and is aimed at crushing Islamist militias and their political backers.
Hifter has won the support of politicians, diplomats, army units and tribes who want him to impose order and rein in the country's unruly militias three years after the toppling and killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Al-Zahawi, speaking in front of the black flag of his group, warned Hifter against opening the "doors of hell" to a conflict similar to Syria's civil war. He warned the United States against backing Hifter, saying it would face a "shameful defeat" and drawing comparisons with the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Somalia.
Ansar al-Shariah is believed to have played a role in the deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, which led to killing of the US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Al-Zahawi also accused Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt of supporting Hifter in a war against "Shariah," or Islamic law. His remarks came as Egyptians voted in an election almost certain to vault former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to power less than a year after he overthrew that country's first elected president, the Islamist Mohammed Morsi.
The leader of Ansar al-Shariah made no mention of the string of assassinations of journalists, judges and members of security forces in Benghazi, which have been blamed on Islamist militias. On Monday, the chief editor of a Libyan newspaper who had criticized Islamists was assassinated in Benghazi.
Earlier on Tuesday, the new Islamist-backed prime minister Ahmed Maiteg was unharmed in an attack on his home that set off a gunbattle with guards, a government official said. The official said four attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades at the house of Maiteg, sparking clashes with security guards. One of the assailants was killed and another was arrested while the rest fled, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Maiteg was named premier in a vote deemed illegitimate by non-Islamist lawmakers. Thousands of Libyans have held demonstrations in recent days demanding the elected assembly halt sessions and accusing it of financing Islamist militias and acting as their political wing.
Islamists have condemned the offensive launched earlier this month as a "coup." Many of the heavily armed rebel brigades that defeated Gadhafi's forces three years ago have since been transformed into militias that refuse to disarm or join the national security forces. They have been blamed for a string of kidnappings and assassinations.
Last year Islamist militiamen abducted then prime minister Ali Zidan in a dramatic illustration of the challenges faced by the weak central government. He was released unharmed several hours later when other militias intervened.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department recommended Tuesday that Americans leave Libya immediately and warned U.S. citizens against any travel to the North African country. The department also said that due to security concerns and limited staffing it was only able to offer limited emergency services to U.S. citizens there. There was no move yet to evacuate diplomats from the embassy.
The department said the security situation in Libya "remains unpredictable and unstable," with crime levels high in many parts the country. It added that various groups also have called for attacks against U.S. citizens and U.S. interests in Libya.
Also Tuesday, U.S. defense officials said the Navy warship USS Bataan had moved into the Mediterranean Sea and could be used, if needed, for any possible evacuation of American personnel from Libya. The officials said the Bataan, an amphibious assault ship, was not near Libya and wasn't expected to be positioned off its coast. It more likely would remain in the region, and could move or respond quickly if called.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter by name.