At least four Libyan soldiers have been killed and several injured as fighters loyal to Khalifa Haftar launched an operation against armed groups in the country’s south.
Field Marshal Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) has pushed south from their eastern base of Benghazi to secure oil fields and battle hardline militants and foreign fighters crossing the desert border from neighbouring Chad.
In December, the UN condemned the spate of unrelated attacks in the country’s south. These included the killing of six hostages from the town of Al Foqha by ISIS as well as attacks and kidnappings of foreign nationals at the Al Sharara oil field which hit oil production.
At the start of the year, the LNA announced the push with spokesman Ahmed Mismari saying the goals included protecting local and foreign oil firms, fighting ISIS and other extremists, and tackling illegal migration.
The clashes on Friday were the first real resistance the LNA has faced since arriving in the south two weeks ago.
LNA officials said clashes began when soldiers left the main southern city of Sabha and arrived in the nearby town of Ghudduwah. It backed troops with air strikes on the "terrorists" and "Chadian mercenaries", the officials said, using a pejorative for Chadian opposition groups active in south Libya.
As well as the four LNA fatalities, several of its soldiers were wounded, the officials said. There was no immediate confirmation of the LNA's version, and it was unclear if there were also casualties on the other side.
The LNA spent the last two weeks securing Sabha, which had been nominally under the control of the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli but was in practice run by local groups including tribes.
The LNA says its campaign is intended to combat Islamic militants and secure oil facilities in the south, which include El Sharara oilfield, Libya's biggest. It has been closed since December when tribesmen and state guards seized it.
The LNA, whose commander dominates eastern Libya, is allied to a parallel government in Benghazi that opposes the Tripoli administration.
Libya has been in turmoil since the Nato-backed toppling of Muammar qaddafi in 2011, with parallel administrations and armed groups carving up control of the nation.
Despite international attempts to unify the competing governments, there has been no success at reconciliation.