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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Libya: Khalifa Haftar's forces enter Derna city from east

The general is battling for the only city outside his control in eastern Libya

Soldiers from the self-styled army of Libyan general Khalifa Haftar take part in a military parade in the eastern city of Benghazi on May 7, 2018, during which Haftar announced a military offensive to take from "terrorists" the city of Derna, the only part of eastern Libya outside his forces' control. Abdullah Doma / AFP
Soldiers from the self-styled army of Libyan general Khalifa Haftar take part in a military parade in the eastern city of Benghazi on May 7, 2018, during which Haftar announced a military offensive to take from "terrorists" the city of Derna, the only part of eastern Libya outside his forces' control. Abdullah Doma / AFP

The forces of Libyan general Khalifa Haftar have entered Derna from its eastern border as they continue an operation to wrestle the city from militants.

The forces of Mr Haftar, who call themselves the Libyan National Army (LNA), launched an operation on May 7 to “liberate” the eastern coastal city that once had a large presence of ISIS fighters and has been known as a bastion of support for Al Qaeda.

The military force posted on Facebook that it had entered the district of Eastern Coast and secured the entrance road into the city there.

The city holds a population of around 150,000 people and had seen dozens of its citizens travel to Iraq following the US invasion in 2003 to fight on the side of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the predecessor of ISIS.

It now hosts fighters allied to the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC), also known as the Derna Protection Forces (DPF). The LNA says the city also hosts foreign fighters with ties to Al Qaeda.

An LNA spokesperson says more than 100 DMSC fighters have been killed in the operation, while Mr Haftar’s forces have lost about 20 of its forces.

The LNA has been conducting air strikes on the city, the only one that lies outside of its control in eastern Libya.

The UN Support Mission in Libya called on all sides to “exercise maximum restraint” in the ongoing fighting.

The global body’s migration agency said that at least 425 families had been displaced in two weeks of fighting as of May 31.

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Mr Haftar has positioned himself as the man to lead the country’s armed forces and even the entire country. But Libya remains fractured and has various political players seeking a stake in its future.

The 75-year-old has used his own force to battle extremists since 2014 in the country wracked by civil war and instability since former leader Muammar Gaddafi’s death in October 2011. A litany of international powers have sought to back Mr Haftar, viewing him as the strongest candidate to take the country forward.

But the UN and France have both sought a political framework in which the country’s different parties can work towards democratic elections. Yet the country appears to be far from hosting such a vote.

Meanwhile, a new accord has been struck for thousands of displaced Libyans to return home to a town that sided with Qaddafi in the 2011 revolution, the country's unity government said Monday.

Fayez Al Sarraj, head of the Government of National Accord (GNA), welcomed the reconciliation deal signed late Sunday by representatives of the pro-Qaddafi town of Tawergha and nearby Misrata, 240 kilometres (145 miles) southeast of the Libyan capital Tripoli.

"The return of the inhabitants of Tawergha to their town will mark the start of the return of all Libya's displaced and exiles inside and outside the country," Mr Sarraj said on the GNA's Facebook page.

The 35,000 residents of Tawergha, a town which sided with Qaddafi right up to his fall, were evicted after his overthrow and have since been kept in camps on the outskirts of Tripoli or scattered across Libya.