TRIPOLI: Islamist groups seized the headquarters of the army's special forces in Libya's second city Benghazi after days of fighting, plunging the country further into lawlessness and uncertainty.
An Islamist and jihadist alliance announced the capture of the main military base in the eastern city in a statement early Wednesday, which was confirmed by an army official.
Ansar al-Sharia, blacklisted as a terrorist organisation by Washington, on its Facebook page published photos of dozens of weapons and crates of ammunition it claimed its jihadists who joined the assault had seized from the base.
Intense fighting in Benghazi has claimed about 60 lives since Saturday, medical officials in the city said.
"Special forces under the command of (Colonel) Wanis Abu Khamada withdrew after several attacks," said the army official after the biggest loss yet for the armed forces in their fight against the country's powerful militias.
The special forces are one of the units of Libya's regular armed forces that support rogue Libyan general Khalifa Haftar but have not placed themselves under his command.
Haftar began his offensive against radical Islamist groups in Benghazi, dubbed "Operation Dignity", in mid-May.
Former deputy prime minister and newly-elected MP Mustapha Abu Shagur was meanwhile freed by his kidnappers, hours after they snatched him from his Tripoli home on Tuesday, his family said.
The kidnapping highlighted the failure of authorities to rein in dozens of militias that sprang up during the 2011 uprising which overthrew longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
"Doctor Abu Shagur has been freed. He is tired but in good health," his nephew Isam al-Naass told AFP. "He was not treated badly" by his kidnappers, he added.
Amid the increasing lawlessness, a number of countries, including Portugal, the Netherlands, Canada and Bulgaria, evacuated their citizens or closed their embassies in Tripoli earlier this week.
France said on Wednesday it had temporarily closed its embassy while a French diplomatic source said 40 French nationals, including the ambassador, had been evacuated along with seven British nationals by sea.
The naval ship carrying them is bound for the southern French port of Toulon, the foreign ministry said.
Tripoli's airport has been closed due to fighting between rival militias seeking to control the facility, with a rocket fired during the clashes on Sunday sparking a blaze at a nearby fuel depot which was still burning on Wednesday, but with less intensity.
The blaze began in a tank containing more than six million litres (1.6 million gallons) of fuel and then spread to another fuel storage site nearby.
Libya has appealed for international help, but former colonial power Italy and Greece have said their involvement would be contingent on a halt to the fighting.
On Tuesday, the Libyan government again called for a ceasefire in the battle for the airport that has killed around 100 people and wounded 400 since July 13.
The clashes, the most violent since the 2011 revolt against Kadhafi, started with a July 13 assault on the airport by armed groups, mainly Islamists.
The attackers are battling to flush out fellow former rebels from the hill town of Zintan, southwest of Tripoli, who have controlled the airport for the past three years.
Top world leaders on Monday urged an immediate ceasefire and called on the UN "to play an essential role in facilitating the political process" to restore stability to Libya.