Libya sees new threat from ISIL after defeat at Sirte

Extremist militants have dispersed in the southern desert and started attacking oil and water pipelines.
A fighter from forces allied with the UN-backed government waves a Libyan flag atop the ruins of a house in Ghiza Bahriya, the last district to be cleared of ISIL militants in its former stronghold of Sirte on December 6, 2016. Hani Amara / Reuters
A fighter from forces allied with the UN-backed government waves a Libyan flag atop the ruins of a house in Ghiza Bahriya, the last district to be cleared of ISIL militants in its former stronghold of Sirte on December 6, 2016. Hani Amara / Reuters

ISIL militants have begun attacks on Libya’s oil and water pipelines, posing a deadly new threat to the country, Libyan defence officials say.

The extremist group lost its Libya headquarters in the central coastal city of Sirte in December after a six-month offensive by militias backed by US air power, but Libyan officials and foreign diplomats say its fighters have now fanned out across the southern desert into desert valleys and inland hills, as they seek to exploit Libya’s political divisions..

Three separate ISIL groups have been identified based in different parts of the Sahara, and, say officials, they are striking at the country’s vulnerable oil and water infrastructure.

One group is near the Mabrouk and Zalla oilfields on the edge of the Sirte Basin, home to the bulk of Libya’s oil production, with a second south-west of Sirte, near the town of Bani Walid.

A third operates close to the border with Algeria, where French officials say ISIL and other groups including Al Qaeda have supply lines crossing into Chad and Niger. Attacks in recent weeks by this group on electricity infrastructure near the southern city of Sabha have worsened power outages in the capital.

“While [ISIL] no longer controls territory, the fight against terrorism is far from finished,” the head of the United Nations Support Mission In Libya (UNSMIL) Martin Kobler told the UN Security Council on Wednesday. “The country’s borders remain porous. Terrorists, human and weapons traffickers and criminal gangs continue to exploit the security vacuum.”

American air strikes have already hit one group, reporting at least 80 militants killed on January 19 when two US-B2 Spirit bombers targeted two ISIL camps in the desert south-east of Sirte.

Photographs of the bombing sites show that the militants were well organised, with dugouts, jeeps, satellite phones and supply dumps.

Meanwhile ISIL continues to hold two enclaves in the eastern city of Benghazi, fighting against the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, the country’s most powerful military commander.

Libyan officials say in recent weeks ISIL has hit pipelines of the Great Man-Made River, the network on which the capital Tripoli and many coastal towns depend for much of their water supply. Other attacks have hit electricity pylons and oil pipelines.

“They work and move around in small groups,” Libyan intelligence official Mohamed Gnaidy in the western city of Misurata told Reuters news agency. “The only solution to eliminate them in this area [in the desert] is through air strikes.”

The Pentagon says it remains ready to launch further air strikes when ISIL targets present themselves, while French forces in Niger patrol the border with Libya to strike extremist convoys crossing between the countries.

But Libya’s efforts to combat ISIL are complicated by a civil war that has raged since 2014. Misurata-based militias back the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli while Field Marshall Haftar supports the rival Interim Government in Al Bayda, and fighting continues between the two. On Tuesday, LNA jets bombed the central base of Hun used by pro-GNA forces.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: February 10, 2017 04:00 AM

SHARE

Editor's Picks
NEWSLETTERS
Sign up to:

* Please select one

Most Read