Libya's Health Ministry says 36 killed in clashes between troops, Islamists in country's east

Fighting in eastern Libya between troops loyal to a rogue general and Islamist militias killed 36 people, the health ministry said Saturday, as the clashes that the central government referred to as a "coup" subsided.

A military official in Benghazi said forces under the command of Gen. Khalifa Hifter withdrew to the city limits after attacking the bases of two Islamist militias Friday. The official said the fighters of the two militias, Rafallah al-Sahati and a militia known as February 17, returned to their bases after they were driven out during the clashes.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Libya's Health Ministry said the fighting Friday, which saw military aircraft under Hifter's control fly over the city, wounded 139 people. The city's airport remained closed Saturday for a second day, though stores reopened and traffic appeared normal.

Hifter's offensive comes amid rising violence in Benghazi blamed on powerful Islamist militias acting outside of government control. Hifter's spokesman said his offensive, called the "Dignity of Libya," aimed to bring these militias under government control and end lawlessness in the city.

But the central government criticized Hifter's attack, calling it is tantamount to a "coup."

Many in the country are divided over the offensive, having grown impatient with the central government's inability to rein in the militias. Last week, three protesters were killed during a protest outside the base of one of the militias. The incident led Libya's justice minister to ask February 17 to abandon its base. The militia ignored the request.

Speaking Saturday on Libyan television station Awalan, Hifter's spokesman Mohammed al-Hegazi urged residents of several Benghazi neighborhoods to leave their homes to avoid getting caught in future fighting as they prepare for further operations there. Al-Hegazi accused the militias of using civilians as shields. He said the operation against the militias will continue "until Libya is cleansed" of extremists.

Hifter, who once headed the army under Gadhafi but defected in the 1980s, is a controversial figure in Libya. After Gadhafi's ouster, he was assigned to help rebuild the country's military, but he was removed soon after. He appeared in an online video in February and proclaimed he intended to "rescue" the nation. Authorities described his declaration as a coup attempt.

The fighting marks the latest turmoil in Benghazi, where a Sept. 11, 2012, attack killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.