(Adds byline, details from irregular forces, army comment, background)
By Feras Bosalum
TRIPOLI, May 16 (Reuters) - Libyan irregular forces backed by helicopters clashed with Islamist militias in the eastern city of Benghazi on Friday in fighting that left at least two people dead, security and medical sources said.
Irregulars of the self-declared “Libyan National Army” led by retired General Khalifa Haftar shelled bases belonging to Ansar al-Sharia and another Islamist militant group in Benghazi, said Mohamed Al-Hejazi, who described himself as a spokesman for Haftar’s forces.
“We are still shelling the camps of militias, as a way to restore the legitimacy of the state of Libya. The militias had controlled the eastern entrances of Benghazi,” Hejazi said.
Libya’s army chief of staff told state television he had given no orders for any regular military units to attack bases in Benghazi.
But the situation on the ground was unclear, and witnesses said at least one regular army helicopter had been used in some of the assaults on the Islamist bases.
At least two people were killed and another 10 injured in the clashes, medical sources at a local hospital said.
Hejazi said militants had fled from their bases into the city, complicating their military operation.
Libya has remained in upheaval since the 2011 uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
Islamist militants have been blamed for a string of assassinations and bombings against the military in Benghazi, and earlier this year Ansar al-Sharia was declared a foreign terrorist organisation by Washington.
The group openly operates its own security checkpoints and some charity services in the city.
Haftar, a leading figure in the anti-Gaddafi revolt, in February stirred rumours of a coup by appearing in military uniform to call for a presidential committee to be formed to govern until new elections.
It was not clear how much support he commands in the country’s nascent army, which is still in training. Tripoli’s government in February said he had no authority and threatened legal action against him.
But the government is fragile and the parliament almost paralysed by rivalries, with little progress to full democracy made since 2011. A planned new constitution is still unwritten and the country is on its third prime minister since March.
U.S. and European countries are helping build up a regular army but Libya’s armed forces and government cannot control brigades of ex-rebels and militants who once fought Gaddafi but have since refused to disarm and often challenge the state.
The North African nation’s vital oil export industry has suffered badly and is often targeted by armed protesters seeking a greater share of oil wealth, federalist power for the regions or just better basic services.
Since last summer, armed protesters have repeatedly closed down ports and oilfields, bringing production down to around 300,000 barrels per day from the 1.4 million bpd that the OPEC member state produced before the protests erupted. (Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami; writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Andrew Roche)