ISIS fighters drew back from long-held positions around the port city of Derna on Wednesday, military forces in eastern Libya said, as forces loyal to the government in the region pushed forward with an offensive in Benghazi.
The retreat around Derna, if confirmed, could mark a momentous shift in the alignment of forces in the area.
ISIS took hold of territory in Libya as two conflicting governments and a number of armed factions came to blows to control the country in the past two years. But it has also faced resistance from other local armed groups on the ground.
Derna was an early stronghold for the terrorist group, as it had witnessed a history of jihad. The militant group lost control of the city last June to rival armed jihadist grouped under the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, but retained positions around the outskirts.
Derna and its suburbs had been “completely liberated from the apostates”, the council said in a statement.
Military forces loyal to Libya’s eastern government said on Thursday they had carried out air strikes overnight against jihadists in Derna after ISIS militants retreated from positions close to the city.
Fighters from ISIS had controlled the city until the Shura Council forces pushed them out last June. The military has attacked both groups.
Military spokesman Abdulkarim Sabra said the overnight air strikes had targeted Shura Council fighters in Derna’s Sayeda Khadija neighborhood and at Bishr prison. He made no comment on possible casualties.
Shura Council spokesman Hafed Addabaa said the prison had held ISIS suspects and added that the strikes had not caused any casualties or damage.
Eastern security forces, which are allied to a government based in the east, have carried out occasional strikes against jihadist rivals around Derna in recent months.
Sabra said ISIS had retreated from Derna’s 400 neighborhood and al-Fatayeh, 20 km (12 miles) south of the city, and its forces were attempting to head towards the militant group’s Libyan stronghold of Sirte when they were cut off.
The military was providing air support for troops, he said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Some Derna residents rejoiced, waving Libyan flags on the streets, according to pictures circulating on social media.
Eastern military forces have also been involved in heavy fighting around 250 km (155 miles) to the west in Benghazi, where they have captured several neighborhoods from fighters loyal to ISIS and other groups.
Clashes continued there on Wednesday, and the military said it had nearly full control of the southern district of Guwarsha. The fighting resulted in the death of one commander and the injury of four soldiers, the army said.
The eastern government was set up after armed opponents took control of the capital, Tripoli, in 2014, and established a contending administration. Both are backed by alliances of former rebels who once fought together to oust Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
Last month, a U.N.-backed unity government arrived in Tripoli, where it has been trying to establish its authority. The West regards the new government as the best chance of terminating Libya’s political divisions and uniting its armed factions to take on ISIS.
But the government has yet to win approval from Libya’s eastern parliament, which received international recognition and has repeatedly failed to hold a vote on the issue.
Lawmakers in the east who support the new government say they have been threatened and physically impeded from holding a vote, including when they tried to convene on Monday.
They have been opposed by allies of eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar, who are concerned about losing control of military appointments if the unity government takes full power.
In an apparent attempt to break the ice with the eastern military, the unity government’s leadership released a statement on Wednesday congratulating it on its advances in Benghazi.
The Presidential Council said it would “provide all necessary support to Benghazi and other affected cities for reconstruction,” and that it was committed to “supporting the institution of the army”.
It also congratulated the “people of Derna and all Libyans” on the “liberation” of the areas around where ISIS pulled out.
Tags: Libya, Unity government, Derna, ISIS