AMMAN, Jordan -- Islamic militants battled Libyan security forces last week in a significant challenge to the government of Col. Muammar el Kadafi, Arab officials and foreign diplomats said yesterday.
At least 30 people were killed in clashes Wednesday and Thursday in the northeastern Libyan city of Benghazi, the diplomats said, basing their reports on accounts of travelers who had gone from Libya to Egypt, Lebanon and Sudan. Some accounts put the death toll as high as 70.
News reports quoted travelers as saying that the clashes had come as security forces were rounding up foreign workers from countries such as Sudan in which Islamic militants have bases. Libya intends to expel the workers, the reports said.
They also said that army checkpoints had been set up in Benghazi and the roads leading to it, and that roads leading to the capital, Tripoli, had been closed to foreigners.
Arab officials said Libya was continuing to deport thousands of Arab workers, mainly Palestinians, Sudanese and Egyptians, in a move announced Sept. 1 by Colonel Kadafi.
In a speech that day, Colonel Kadafi suggested that many of those tagged for expulsion were "infiltrators" who had entered the country posing as migrant workers under Libya's policy of allowing Arabs to come in without visas.
His expulsion of Palestinians stems from his unhappiness with the Palestine Liberation Organization for holding peace talks with Israel. He said he would like to send all Palestinians to "their new Palestinian state" -- the Gaza Strip, which is now under Palestinian rule.
He also said expelling foreign workers from Arab countries was part of a plan to create jobs for Libyans.
Like their counterparts in the Egyptian government, Libyan officials believe that the government in Sudan has provided arms and training for Islamic militants.
While the clashes are by far the largest challenge to Colonel Kadafi since he took power 26 years ago, smaller confrontations took place in the vicinity of Benghazi last June.