Libyan rebel forces reportedly take control of strategic city of Sirte

Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army advances into Mediterranean centre

Ahmad al-Mismari, spokesman for Khalifa Haftar’s forces, addresses the media in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. Photograph: Abdullah Doma/AFP via Getty Images

Ahmad al-Mismari, spokesman for Khalifa Haftar’s forces, addresses the media in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. Photograph: Abdullah Doma/AFP via Getty Images

 

Libyan forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar said on Monday they had taken control of the strategic coastal city of Sirte in a rapid advance preceded by air strikes.

Holding Sirte would be an important gain for Mr Haftar, who since April has been waging a military offensive on the capital, Tripoli, home to Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

Sirte lies in the centre of Libya’s Mediterranean coast, and has been controlled by GNA-aligned forces since they ejected Islamic State from the city with the help of US air strikes in late 2016.

Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) said it had taken areas surrounding Sirte, including al-Qardabiya air base, before moving towards the city centre.

“The commander-in-chief decided on a well-planned, pre-emptive strike and within less than three hours we were in the heart of Sirte,” said LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari.

“It was a sudden, swift operation,” he said, adding that the advance had been preceded by several hours of air strikes.

An LNA military source said forces from the city of Misrata, to the northwest, had retreated. Misrata led the campaign against Islamic State and is a key source of military power for the GNA.

Earlier, a resident in Sirte city centre told Reuters by phone: “We can see convoys of LNA inside Sirte city . . . they control large parts of the city now. We also hear gunfire.”

There was no immediate comment from GNA forces.

The LNA advance comes as Turkey prepares to send military advisers and experts to Libya to help shore up the GNA, part of rising international involvement in Libya’s conflict.

Mr Haftar’s LNA has received material and military support from states including the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt, according to UN experts and diplomats.

In recent weeks there has been an escalation of fighting, shelling and air strikes around Tripoli. On Saturday evening a military academy in the capital was hit, killing at least 30 people.

UN Libya envoy Ghassan Salame said the drone strike on the academy had likely been carried out by a foreign country backing the LNA, without elaborating. He called on foreign powers to “keep out of Libya”. – Reuters