(Adds background, context)
By Feras Bosalum and Ulf Laessing
TRIPOLI, May 19 (Reuters) - A Libyan air force base in the eastern city of Tobruk said on Monday it was allying itself with a renegade general who has promised to purge the country of Islamist militants.
A statement from the air base said its personnel wanted to fight what it called extremists, echoing the rhetoric of General Khalifa Haftar.
“The Torbuk air force base will join...the army under the command of General Khalifa Qassim Haftar,” the statement said. Staff at the air base confirmed its authenticity.
Heavily-armed gunmen apparently loyal to Haftar had stormed parliament on Sunday demanding it be suspended and power handed over to a 60-member body that is rewriting Libya’s constitution.
The Tobruk air base development was significant as it was not clear how much backing Haftar’s men had within Libya’s nascent regular armed forces and the powerful brigades of former rebels who had toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Any alliance of militias lining up against Islamist groups threatens to deepen chaos in the OPEC oil producer, whose fragile government is struggling to gain legitimacy and impose its authority.
Haftar, once a Gaddafi ally who turned against him over a 1980s war in Chad, fueled rumours of a coup in February when he appeared on television in uniform calling for a caretaker government to end the crisis in Libya.
His forces attacked militants in the eastern city of Benghazi on Friday. More than 70 people were killed.
Tripoli was quiet on Monday with most people staying indoors after fighting raged across the capital on Sunday. Two people were killed in that violence.
The international airport was open though some flights were cancelled as travellers could not easily reach it. But authorities extended the closure of Benghazi airport for another week because of the unrest, the airport director said. It was attacked with rockets overnight.
Saudi Arabia closed its embassy in Tripoli and evacuated its diplomatic staff due to security reasons on Monday.
Since the end of Gaddafi’s one-man rule, the main rival militias of ex-rebels have become powerbrokers in Libya’s political vacuum, carving out fiefdoms and flexing their military muscle to make demands on the state. (Reporting by Feras Bosalum and Ulf Laessing, Editing by Angus MacSwan)