TRIPOLI, Feb 24, (Agencies): Islamic State group jihadists briefly occupied the heart of a Libyan city near Tripoli but were ousted by militia fighters, in clashes that left 16 people dead, officials said Wednesday. IS has taken advantage of growing chaos to expand its foothold in the North African country, which has rival governments vying for power. The jihadists’ overnight seizure of the security headquarters and other buildings in Sabratha came days after a US air strike hit an IS training camp near the western city, killing dozens, probably including a senior IS operative.
IS fighters exploited the “security vacuum” in the city centre as security forces loyal to authorities in militiaheld Tripoli conducted raids looking for IS operatives in the suburbs, Sabratha’s municipal council said in a statement. Up to 200 IS fi ghters from “sleeper cells” seized the chance at around midnight Tuesday to take control of the security headquarters and other buildings, Taher al-Gharabli, the head of the city’s military council, told television. Ten members of the security forces were killed when IS attacked the security base, while six others died in clashes before and afterwards, military council spokesman Adel Benwir said. Security forces have since regained “complete control,” Benwir said.
“Some IS fighters are south of the city,” he added, without giving a number. Libya has had rival administrations since mid-2014 when the internationally recognised government fl ed Tripoli after the Fajr Libya militia alliance overran the capital and set up its own parliament. Last June, IS seized the coastal city of Sirte, east of Tripoli, raising fears that it is establishing a new stronghold on Europe’s doorstep. The group has since attacked key coastal oil facilities and staged a string of suicide bombings.
The two cities have been on opposite sides of Libya’s post-Gaddafi conflict, with Zintan allied to the internationally recognised government now based in the country’s far east and Sabrathan forces among those that support a rival government whose armed supporters seized the capital Tripoli in 2014. On Friday, the United States carried out an air strike on a suspected Islamic State training camp in Sabratha, killing nearly 50 people. Serbia’s government said two Serbian diplomats kidnapped in Libya in November also died in the attack.
Military forces loyal to Libya’s eastern government said on Tuesday they had taken control of two key neighbourhoods in Benghazi, building on gains made against Islamist fi ghters over the previous three days. The military said it had full control of the districts of Boatni and Laithi and claimed advances in several other areas. A hospital source said 20 people had been killed and 45 wounded in the latest clashes. The eastern city of Benghazi has seen some of the worst violence in the confl ict that has plagued Libya since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in an uprising fi ve years ago.
The violence escalated when military commander Khalifa Haftar launched a campaign in 2014 against Islamists and other armed groups, with the factions taking up entrenched positions in Benghazi’s streets. On Tuesday residents celebrated the army’s advances by sounding car horns and setting off fi reworks. Some returned to their homes for the fi rst time in months to check for damage. Haftar’s Libyan National Army is loyal to Libya’s eastern government, which has received international recognition but is opposed by a rival government based in Tripoli.
A unity government nominated under a United Nations-backed plan is trying to win support within Libya, but its progress has been hindered by political arguments including what role Haftar could have in a future national army. Libya’s eastern parliament rejected an initial unity government line-up last month and has repeatedly delayed voting on a revised proposal, pushing back a vote once again on Tuesday. Islamist fi ghters have exploited a security vacuum to expand their presence in Libya, with militants loyal to Islamic State establishing control in the coastal city of Sirte and a presence in several other cities, including Benghazi.