Libyan forces attack ISIL near former stronghold
BENGHAZI/TRIPOLI - ReutersEast Libyan forces said they had launched air strikes on Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters after the militants made incursions south and east of their former coastal stronghold of Sirte.
The jihadist group has grown bolder in recent weeks, setting up temporary checkpoints, attacking local forces, and taking over village mosques to lead prayers during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, Libyan officials say.
The increased activity has raised concern that ISILcould regroup around Sirte, from where it was driven out in December by local forces and a U.S. air campaign. Most militants were killed in the nearly seven-month battle, but an unknown number fled into the desert.
Sirte lies at the centre of Libya's Mediterranean coastline, on the dividing line between regions controlled by rival Libyan factions.
Forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar said they had carried out air strikes on Sept. 3 against militants in the area of Ain Tarqft, between Sirte and the town of Waddan, 230 km to the south.
Both Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA) and forces from the port city of Misrata, which led the campaign in Sirte last year, say they are carrying out frequent patrols to monitor ISIL movements in the area.
The LNA and Misratan brigades have been on opposite sides of a conflict that developed after the NATO-backed uprising that toppled Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
ISIL exploited the turmoil to establish a foothold in Libya, taking complete control of Sirte in 2015 and using it as a base for hundreds of foreign fighters.
Meanwhile, France’s Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian was in Libya on Sept. 4 to meet rival political leaders and offer support for a deal aimed at stabilising the strifetorn North African country.
Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Seraj and the divided nation’s eastern commander Khalifa Haftar signed an agreement in Paris in July committing them to a conditional ceasefire and to work towards elections in 2018. The deal did not include other key factions.
In Tripoli, Le Drian met Seraj and planned to hold talks with Abdulrahman Swehli, a politician connected to some of Haftar’s rivals who heads a parliamentary council in the capital, Libyan officials said.
Le Drian was also to visit Misrata, Swehli’s home city and a base of opposition to Haftar, before heading to Benghazi to meet Haftar and to Tobruk to meet the head of an eastern-based parliament aligned with him.
“The minister wants to consolidate this agreement by getting the parties not invited in July to support it,” said a French diplomatic source.
“He wants to ensure that everyone is playing the game and lay the groundwork for elections.”
The French minister’s visit is in line with President Emmanuel Macron’s push for a deeper French role in bringing Libyan factions together in the hope of countering militant violence and easing Europe’s migrant crisis.