WASHINGTON, April 8, (RTRS): Islamic State has doubled its fighters in Libya to between 4,000 and 6,000 in the last 12 to 18 months but militias in the North African nation have limited the hardline militants’ growth, the commander of US forces in Africa said on Thursday.
Islamic State’s stronghold in Libya is the city of Sirte but it also has a presence in Derna and Benghazi in the east and Sabratha in the west, General David M Rodriguez, head of US Africa Command, told a news briefing.
“In Benghazi and Derna, (Libyan armed groups) have fought back against the Islamic State and made it much tougher for them to operate, as well as in Sabratha,” he said.
“They are contesting the growth of ISIS in several areas across Libya,” Rodriguez said, citing US intelligence assessments for the growth of Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
The group’s growth in Libya has worried Western governments, which fear it will take advantage of persistent political chaos to emulate its success in seizing territory in Iraq and Syria.
Since 2014, loose coalitions of armed brigades have backed rival governments in Tripoli and the east. Western governments back the Government of National Accord, in part as the best chance for uniting armed factions against Islamic State. “The challenge of the Government of National Accord is to bring them together one for the future of Libya, but also to get rid of ISIS,” Rodriguez said. He downplayed the possibility Islamic State could strike out from its base and take large portions of territory as it did in Iraq and Syria. “They don’t have the homegrown people that know as much about Libya lthey did in Iraq and Syria,” Rodriguez said. “The Libyan people are also different in the way they treat and respond to foreigners, so all that has an impact.” US air strikes in Libya have targeted Islamic State, but those efforts are focused on targets posing an imminent threat to US interests and personnel, Rodriguez said.
Meanwhile, France’s foreign minister on Friday ruled out launching air strikes or sending troops on the ground to tackle Islamic State in Libya, but said it could help secure the UN-brokered national unity government in Tripoli. Western powers are backing the unity government, hoping it will seek foreign support to confront Islamic State militants, deal with migrant fl ows from Libya to Europe and restore oil production to shore up Libya’s economy. However, there are fears that direct military intervention could worsen the situation especially if a political vacuum remains in the country. “We shouldn’t make the same mistakes as in the past. If you’re imagining air strikes, ground troops, that’s not on the table. It’s not France’s position anyway,” Jean-Marc Ayrault told France Info radio.
“However, to secure the government, if Mr (Fayez) Seraj (head of the unity government) asks for international help then we’ll study it.” Diplomatic sources have said that so far there has been no request from Seraj other than to help him leave the country should the security situation in Tripoli deteriorate. Paris played a leading part in the NATO air campaign that helped rebels overthrow autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 but later regretted the lack of support given to the authorities afterwards. French aircraft are now conducting reconnaissance fl ights over Libya while French military advisers operate on the ground in conjunction with Britain and the United States. Ayrault said this week France hoped to reopen its embassy in as soon as possible as a sign of support for Libya’s new unity government. “Yesterday, I spoke to Mr Seraj, who invited me to come to Libya. As soon as the conditions are right, I shall go,” Ayrault said.