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May 6, 1:55 PM EDT

Mortar shells hit pro-army rally in eastern Libya; 3 killed

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BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) -- Mortar shells slammed Friday into a rally in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi where hundreds had gathered in support of a military offensive on the Islamic State-held central city of Sirte, killing three people and wounding 20, hospital officials said.

First, three rockets hit an area near the al-Keish city center where the rally was taking place, said Khalil Gwaidar, spokesman of Benghazi medical center. One more landed an hour later.

Witnesses at the rally said the rockets landed to the left and to the right of the stage from where activists and politicians were addressing the crowd. The explosions sent people running in all directions, trying to take shelter from flying shrapnel, they added.

Gwaidar and another medical official in the Jalaa Hospital said three people were killed and 20 were wounded. Ambulances were seen rushing to the place. The second official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media and the witnesses declined to give their names fearing for their safety.

Benghazi is Libya's second largest city and home to the 2011 uprising that descended into a full-scale civil war that led to the killing of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, the country has sunk further into lawlessness and in 2014, it split into two rival parliaments and governments.

Last year, the United Nations brokered a deal on a unity government to heal the rift among the Libyans but the new government has so far failed to win the support of various factions.

Meanwhile, an Islamic State affiliate emerged in Libya, using the turmoil gripping the country, and last year seized the central coastal city of Sirte, creating its own stronghold there.

Late last month, Libyan forces based in the country's east and loyal to the internationally recognized government under army chief Khalifa Hifter, announced they would unilaterally push on toward Sirte to retake it from the IS group.

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