TRIPOLI, Libya – A deadly car bomb exploded Monday near a hospital in a busy area packed with civilians in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, destroying part of the facility, officials said.
Officials gave conflicting casualty figures, with death tolls ranging from three to 10 in the chaotic aftermath of the attack.
Benghazi, which was the birthplace of the revolution that led to the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi, has suffered a series of assassinations and other attacks, including the Sept. 11 assaults on the U.S. diplomatic mission that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The oil-rich North African nation is still largely dominated by militias, many including fighters who battled Gadhafi's forces during the 2011 civil war, and many attacks are blamed on them as infighting is rampant in the battle for control.
But witnesses and analysts said Monday's explosion stood out because it struck during the day in a crowded area, putting civilians at risk.
"The bombing is significant in that it is the first that targets civilians," Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said in an email.
"The bombing is going to put renewed pressure on an already embattled Ministry of Interior to reign in the revolutionary brigades," he added, referring to militias.
The blast took place on Beirut Street, a residential and shopping area in Libya's second-largest city and quickly drew protesters to the streets to call for stronger security measures. Other vehicles on the street were destroyed, and the windows of nearby buildings were shattered.
Jalaa hospital, just a few hundred meters (yards) away from the explosion, had been protected for months by Ansar al-Shariah, an extremist group that disbanded its work as a militia following protests by Benghazi residents after the attack on Stevens. The hospital is now secured by a mix of militias and special army forces.
Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan acknowledged the government was in part to blame for the instability and lawlessness that continue to plague the North African nation 19 months after Gadhafi was captured and killed.
"Authorities did not take adequate precautions," he said in remarks carried live on Libya's al-Ahrar TV channel.
Zidan, who did not take questions from reporters, said that Libya is still trying to create a security force capable of tackling such attacks.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack. Zidan suggested it could be Gadhafi supporters or "other factions" — leaving the door open for a range of groups.
Fathi al-Ubaidi, a top commander of Libya Shield, an umbrella group of militias aligned with the military, said one man was arrested but refused to give further details.
Small protests erupted in Benghazi and Tripoli after the attack, with people chanting: "Where is the army" and "Oh Zidan, oh Zidan, the Libyan people's blood is everywhere."
Witnesses and other residents said the daytime explosion was unusual since past attacks have occurred at night and have targeted police stations or foreign missions.
"The mood is bad because the explosion took everybody by surprise," said International Crisis Group consultant Claudia Gazzini, who was in Benghazi. "People in Benghazi see this as a turning point because it is the first time to see an indiscriminate attack with civilian casualties."
Dr. Habib Mohammed el-Obeidy said three bodies had been brought to Benghazi's main Jalaa Hospital after the explosion that struck just outside its doors. He blamed the confusion over the number of dead on the fact that body parts were brought in in several bags, making a final casualty figure difficult to assess.
He also said there was no security on the street.
"When we see police stations hit we understand because a large portion of security worked closely with Gadhafi, but this is hitting a civilian area with no security in sight. It is as if someone is shuffling cards around," he said.
Over the weekend explosions went off outside three Benghazi police stations. No one claimed responsibility for those attacks.
Senior security official Abdel-Salam al-Barghathi said 10 people had been killed in the bombing when attackers used a remote control to detonate the explosives-laden car, which was parked outside a bakery near the hospital. Weapons including Kalashnikov rifles were found inside the car, he said.
"This is meant to kill civilians and to destabilize the security of the city of Benghazi," he said.
The Tripoli-based Interior Minister Ashour Shwayel said earlier in an interview with al-Ahrar TV that two or three people were killed. Meanwhile, Benghazi police chief Tarek al-Kharaz said at least 13 people were killed and 41 wounded.
Nozha al-Mansouri, a 38 year-old resident of Bengazhi, said the attack was likely meant to embarrass the central government.
"Today's incident definitely draws attention to the government's shortcomings," she said.
Militias have grown bold in the past two years, taking on greater roles post-Gadhafi by providing border protection and security of airports to fill the vacuum as the central government has been unable to exert control.
But Libyans had hoped a return to normalcy after militias ended their nearly two week siege of two government ministries in the capital over the weekend, demanding that the prime minister and other Cabinet officials resign.
Batrawy contributed to this report from Cairo.