BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — Libyan militias that occupied two key oil terminals last week said Monday they intend to take the eastern city of Benghazi and unseat Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter, who controls the area.
Col. Mustafa Alsharksi, leader of the so-called Benghazi Defense Brigades, said more than 3,000 men are poised to continue eastward now that they have taken over the oil terminals of al-Sidra and Ras Lanuf.
The move threatens to escalate the conflict between Libya's two competing parliaments and governments, each backed by a set of militias, tribes and political factions, and potentially damage the contested oil installations.
"Our main goal is to return our city," Alsharksi said at a news conference in Misrata. "Our main goal is to reject and say no to oppression, say no to military rule (of Hifter),"
The militias are comprised of Islamic militants and former rebels recently defeated by Hifter's forces in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city. They were joined by militiamen from the western city of Misrata.
Alsharksi, who described Hifter as a "criminal," said his forces will continue to ensure oil revenues go to the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.
The Hifter-allied army units say they have deployed more forces in preparation for a counterattack to drive out the militias, describing the militias' recent advances as "a war against a whole region" that "they will not win."
Hifter's army is allied to the internationally recognized parliament based in eastern Libya, while the internationally recognized government based in the capital, Tripoli, opposes Hifter. The latter has condemned the fighting and says it has no role in it, according to a statement released by the Presidency Council, the United Nations-brokered body that was given the task of forming the government and that has presidential powers.
Libya descended into chaos with its 2011 civil war, which ended with the killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi and led to the current split.
The oil terminals have changed hands several times in the past three years, and the latest seizure has hurt production that was finally increasing and had reached 700,000 barrels a day in February.
Alsharksi described his forces as "revolutionaries" who took part in the uprising against Gadhafi. He said they attacked the oil terminal areas because Hifter's side had been using airports there to launch airstrikes against their allies.
He said his troops are comprised of "civilians and military officers not affiliated to any political party or groups" who "fight terrorism in Libya."
In a joint statement, the ambassadors from Libya of France, the United Kingdom and the United States condemned the escalation of violence and called for an immediate cease-fire.
?"We recall the urgent need for a unified national military force under civilian command in order to preserve the security and prosperity of all Libyans," they said. "We reaffirm the need to keep oil infrastructure, production, and export under the exclusive control of the National Oil Corporation acting under the authority? of the Government of National Accord."