In Libya's Benghazi, cafes stay open near battlegrounds as residents adjust to prolonged war

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BENGHAZI, Libya — As fighting raged Friday between Islamist militias and forces loyal to Libya's elected government, the mood was of resigned indifference in this embattled city that once took pride in being the first to rise up against longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Residents ignored the crack of gunfire and blasts from artillery and airstrikes that at times nearly drowned out the mosques' call to prayers and went about their daily routines.

At a mosque in the upscale district of Hadayk, a wedding party gathered just a few hundred yards from heavy battles. Young men smoked water pipes in a cafe only blocks away from other clashes.

"It has become very normal to pass by a corpse in the street and not stop. Now, as we are going to pray, in the background, we hear explosions," said Mohsen Wagdi, a 20-year-old student, as he headed to Friday prayers.

Still, signs of battle were everywhere. Many neighborhoods were deserted, while young men sealed off others with makeshift checkpoints. Intense fighting in some business and residential areas has left hundreds of families trapped, prompting the Red Crescent to plead for a cease-fire "even for one hour" to evacuate civilians.

The death toll from three days of fighting stood at 49, including 19 bodies, most of them civilians, brought Friday to a Benghazi hospital, according to hospital officials and a relief group that has been collecting bodies and bringing them to the main morgue. The exact number of deaths could be much higher, however, as warring groups usually retrieve the bodies of their own.

The latest cycle of violence follows more than two years of dashed hopes and failed attempts by civilians to stand up to the Islamist militias. Activists, judges, journalists, policemen and army officers have been gunned down in a series of assassinations carried out by assailants who have not been caught. As the central government flounders, hard-line Islamists act with impunity.

In May, much of Benghazi supported an offensive by renegade Gen. Khalifa Hifter to take back the city using his own forces and remnants of the national army. The offensive failed, leaving Hifter's troops cornered in the city's airport.

On Wednesday, Hifter, who once was an army chief under Gadhafi before joining his opponents, called upon citizens to take up arms in a new operation he described as a final push against the Islamist fighters.

Now, Benghazi youths who once fought side by side against Gadhafi are pointing guns against each other in a struggle where neither side appears able to deal a decisive blow.

One group is dominated by extremist Islamist militiamen — many former rebels who refused to join the army or police — operating under an umbrella group called the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. Their adversaries, a coalition of pro-government forces and armed civilians, have sided with ultraconservative Salafi fighters known as Sahwa — similar to the Iraqi Sunni militias that joined U.S. troops in the fight against al-Qaida at the height of that country's insurgency in 2007 and 2008.

As the battles rage, Libya remains deeply split.

The oil-rich North African nation has two rival governments. One, based in Tripoli, was set up by Islamist-allied militias from the coastal city of Misrata who lead an umbrella group called Libya Dawn.

On the other side, the parliament elected in June — a body dominated by anti-Islamist lawmakers — was forced to flee to the remote coastal city of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, more than 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) from Tripoli. It has set up an internationally recognized government there with Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni at the head, backed by a few militias of its own, as well as the weak and shattered military.

All around the country, cities, towns, tribes and ethnic minorities are now choosing sides, raising the possibility of greater conflict.

Social networking sites have been flooded with gruesome pictures.

One Islamist faction known as Rafallah Sehati posted on its official Facebook page Friday the names and pictures of a father and his three sons who were allegedly killed by pro-government militias. Al-Wasat newspaper reported that a fourth son was a member of the Islamist militias.

The looming state of uncertainty and prolonged violence has prompted many to adjust to the news of killings and bloodshed.

"You can find a wedding and a mourning tent side by side now. A state of mental alienation is a strategy for adopting to life in a war zone," said Faraj Najm, a historian and Benghazi resident.

"The militarization of civilians in the streets is very dangerous. Killings of families will only lead to retaliatory attacks," he added. "It is a grave mistake to ask people to take up weapons... The people's support should always be through peaceful means, or we will end up with more militias and ignite a civil war."


Michael reported from Cairo.

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