BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – 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 Haftar, who since April has been waging a military offensive on the capital, Tripoli, home to Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
Sirte lies in the center 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 U.S. air strikes in late 2016.
Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) said they had taken areas surrounding Sirte including al-Qardabiya air base, before moving towards the city center.
“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 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 center 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.
TURKEY SENDING MILITARY ADVISORS
The LNA advance comes as Turkey prepares to send military advisors and experts to Libya to help shore up the GNA, part of a trend of rising international involvement in Libya’s conflict.
Haftar’s LNA has received material and military support from countries including the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt, according U.N. experts and diplomats.
In recent weeks there has been an escalation of fighting, shelling and air strikes around Tripoli. On Saturday evening a military college in the capital was hit, killing at least 30 people, a day after the only functioning airport in Tripoli faced its latest closure due to shelling and rocket fire.
Sirte, the birthplace of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, was taken over by Islamic State in early 2015, becoming the jihadist group’s most important base outside the Middle East.
The city is just to the west of Libya’s oil crescent, a strip of coastline along which several key oil export terminals are located. Haftar’s forces seized the oil ports in 2016.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami; Writing by Aidan Lewis, Editing by William Maclean and Gareth Jones