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Haftar’s forces establish control in southern Libya

Libyan National Army captures strategic base and towns in Jufra region where radical militias from Benghazi were based.
Ahmed Al Mismari, a spokesman for the Libyan National Army, holds a press conference in the eastern city of Benghazi on June 2, 2017. Abdullah Doma / AFP
Ahmed Al Mismari, a spokesman for the Libyan National Army, holds a press conference in the eastern city of Benghazi on June 2, 2017. Abdullah Doma / AFP

Libya’s eastern army led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar has captured a key desert base from militants, in the latest of a series of victories that has established its dominance in the south of the country.

Two days of fighting backed by intensive air strikes have seen the Libya National Army (LNA), which is loyal to the House of Representatives parliament in the eastern town of Tobruk, capture Jufra airbase, 500 kilometres south-west of Tripoli.

Mohamed Al Afirs, spokesman for the LNA’s 12th Brigade, said soldiers entered the base on Saturday morning to find it deserted, a day after fierce fighting nearby. The base’s capture came after the army secured the towns of Waddan, Hun and Sawkna on Thursday and Friday.

The Jufra region was the main base for the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), a radical militia originally from the city of the same name. Around Jufra is a complex of bases, ammunition storage facilities and an airbase dating back to the rule of the late Muammar Qaddafi, who was deposed in the 2011 revolution.

These bases were the springboard for an attack by the BDB on the country’s biggest oil ports, Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, 250km to the north-east on March 4. The ports were recaptured by the LNA 10 days later.

The LNA’s Jufra offensive comes after Egypt launched air strikes on militants in both Jufra and Derna, on the north-east coast, in response to the killing of 29 Coptic Christians in Egypt’s Minya province on May 26. Cairo said it was targeting militant bases where the attackers had been trained.

LNA forces attacked the area around Jufra airbase from several directions starting late on Thursday, led by an elite brigade, the Zawiya Martyrs, and backed by several waves of air strikes.

Video released from the fighting at Waddan shows army units driving in convoy through the town. LNA spokesman Ahmed Al Mismari said casualties from the battles for the town had been light, with six dead from either side.

The capture of Jufra follows LNA victories last month in seizing two strategic airbases in the south-west of the country, and the culmination of these offensives has given the army domination of much of the country’s interior. The army’s loyalty to the Tobruk parliament places it in opposition to the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli.

Taking control of Jufra removes the BDB threat to the oil ports and cements the parliament’s control over not only the ports but also the so-called Oil Crescent, home to more than two thirds of Libya’s oil production.

The fighting has exposed the delicate tangle of factions in Libya’s complicated civil war, which began in July 2014. The BDB supports the GNA, and for the short time it held them in March, it handed the two central oil ports to GNA control. However, the GNA insists it has no control over the BDB.

Diplomats fear the fighting will diminish the chances of peace talks between the rival regimes in Tripoli and Tobruk. After international mediation, parliament and the GNA agreed in May to form a commission to find a peace formula, but with the balance of the war changing in favour of parliament, legislators are likely to be less willing to compromise with the GNA.

LNA leaders say they now intend to expand the offensive, driving north-west towards the town of Bani Walid, where security forces who are sympathetic to the army last week clashed with ISIL units outside the town.

“We will move to the west, to Bani Walid, very gradually, because this is a very dangerous area,” Mr Al Mismari said.

The GNA has not commented on the fighting in Waddan, but is facing problems of its own in the capital, where militias, some pro-GNA, some backing a third rival government, the Salvation Government, fought street battles on May 26 which killed 28.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: June 3, 2017 04:00 AM

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