The central government and parliament are already weakened by a recent dispute over naming an interim prime minister between Islamist and non-Islamist politicians. Many in the country are divided over the offensive, having grown impatient with the central government's inability to rein in the militias or govern. 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.
Those in Benghazi, considered the heart of Libya's oil-rich eastern region, long complained that Gadhafi's government starved it of resources during his 42-year rule. Since his ouster, militias rooted in the rebels that fought him have become the real power in Libya, including increasingly radical groups taking hold in Benghazi.
The past two years, militias have killed some 200 prominent figures, including top police officials, prosecutors, judges and activists, mostly in the country's east. A Sept. 11, 2012, attack there killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
"The problem is we don't have a central command or a government to begin with. They are sitting in one room in Tripoli that they can't even protect," said Essam al-Jahani, a political analyst in Benghazi. "The residents of Benghazi need help from anyone. There are honorable people who joined Hifter."
Hifter, who once headed the army under Gadhafi but defected in the 1980s, had been 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.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.
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