The Libyan National Army captured high ground outside Derna in fierce fighting on Tuesday, the second day of its offensive against militias holding the eastern Libyan town.
LNA units backed by air strikes and artillery captured hills around Fattaih, 15 kilometres east of the town, as mobile forces pressed against the coastal settlement from five points.
The town, on the coastal highway between Benghazi and Egypt, is the last opposition bastion to the LNA in eastern Libya, and LNA commander Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar vowed on Monday that it would be captured.
Derna is controlled by a militia coalition, the Derna Mujahaddin Shura Council (DMSC), and the LNA has been encircling the town for the past three years.
Field Marshall Haftar declared on Monday that attempts to negotiate a peaceful end to the militia occupation of Derna had broken down. "The peace efforts in Derna have reached a dead end," he said. "Our army forces are now targeting their hideouts. We have given instructions to avoid civilians."
Fighting has concentrated around a flour factory to the east of Derna, with a field hospital doctor saying four soldiers were killed and five wounded on Monday. The DMSC said one of its fighters was killed. LNA sources say fighting is concentrated east of the town, with the road west left open for civilians wanting to flee.
The DMSC operates a radical style of government, and refuses to accept the authority of the House of Representatives parliament based in the nearby town of Tobruk, which controls most of eastern Libya.
Capturing Derna would complete a campaign begun four years ago this week by Field Marshall Haftar to ejected radical militias he has branded terrorists from eastern Libya. That campaign saw the self-styled LNA seize key oil ports from militias in September 2016, and last July crush militias in Benghazi, Libya’s second city.
Those victories have left the DMSC beleagured, having lost the support of allied militias in Benghazi. Its radical agenda has failed to find support outside Derna, and its militia units lack the weapons and training of the LNA.
Derna has had a chequered history. In November 2014 it was captured by ISIS. The DMSC, composed of locally-raised militias, pushed ISIS out of town the next June. Egypt has in the past launched air strikes at what it said were terrorist training camps operating in the town.
For the Tobruk government, capturing Derna would cement its control of eastern and much of central Libya, underlining what supporters say is the growing security disparity between east and west Libya. Most of eastern Libya is free of fighting and held by government security units, a vivid contrast to Tripoli, where the rival UN-backed Government of National Accord is unable to control the capital’s militias who fight periodic street battles.
There has been no comment on the Derna fighting so far from the United Nations Support Mission for Libya, which is urging all sides to prepare for elections in a bid to end nearly four years of chaos and bloodshed. Concerns about election security have been raised following an ISIS suicide attack on the Tripoli headquarters of Libya's High National Elections Commission on May 2 which left at least 12 dead.
Meanwhile, fighting between rival tribal groups is continuing in the south-west of the country, with tanks and artillery deployed in a struggle for control of the town of Sabha that began in February. There, three children were killed in fighting on Sunday according to the director of the Sabha Medical Centre.