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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

ISIL arm in Libya seizes Sirte airport from Tripoli forces

Capture of Qardabiya base is first military gain for extremist group's newly established Libya arm.

Tripoli // The Libyan arm of ISIL has seized control of the airport near the city of Sirte after forces of a Tripoli-based government withdrew.

A spokesman for the government, which is not recognised by the international community, said its forces pulled out late Thursday from the airport which had “fallen into the hands of the IS organisation”.

Mohamed Al Shami said the forces had pulled out of the airport, which is also a military base called Qardabiya, to redeploy “as part of an operation to secure” two areas east and west of Sirte.

This is the first time that ISIL in Libya has recorded such a military gain.

“After they left, Islamic State group fighters entered the base which had been completely emptied of equipment, except for one military plane which is out of use,” Mr Al Shami said.

Qardabiya is 20 kilometres south of Sirte, hometown of the late dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who was ousted and killed in Libya’s 2011 uprising.

A statement posted by the Libyan ISIL affiliate on Twitter said the militant group seized the air base along with Qaddafi-era mega-project known as the Great Man Made River.

Sirte has been the scene of several months of sporadic fighting between ISIL and the Libya Dawn militia alliance tasked by the Tripoli government to secure the city.

Mr Al Shami said the pro-Tripoli forces would launch a counteroffensive to retake the airport once reinforcements arrived.

Sirte, 450km east of Tripoli, has been a bastion of extremism, with rival groups positioned in the Mediterranean city.

Since Qaddafi was toppled, chaos has gripped Libya as battle-hardened former rebel groups armed with heavy weapons carve out their own fiefdoms.

Libya Dawn seized control of Tripoli last year and set up a government and parliament opposed to the administration recognised by the international community that has taken refuge in the country’s far east, near the border with Egypt.

ISIL militants has exploited the chaos to gain ground, especially around Sirte, where it first emerged in February.

In addition to Sirte, ISIL controls the eastern city of Derna. In recent months, the extremist militants have captured and beheaded dozens of Christian labourers and migrants, including Egyptians and Ethiopians.

They have attacked oil fields while trying to expand their territory to the east of Sirte but were repelled by local fighters.

* Agence France-Presse and Assciated Press