The head of Libya’s unity government on Tuesday urged Libyans to rally behind the battle against jihadists in Sirte, as the UN moved to stop the flood of weapons into the country.
The UN Security Council was set to authorise a European Union naval mission to enforce an arms embargo on the country, where pro-government forces are fighting to oust the Islamic State group from its stronghold on the Mediterranean coast.
The 15-member council was to vote on a draft resolution that would expand the EU’s Operation Sophia mission, which has been combating migrant-smuggling.
We bless the victories of our sons on the front lines... in the fight to liberate Sirte and cleanse it.
Diplomats hope such a move would shore up the UN-backed administration led by Prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj, who on Tuesday said advances by pro-government fighters in Sirte should be a model for “a national initiative to fight terrorism”.
Forces allied with his Government of National Accord (GNA) have been fighting since mid-May to oust IS from Sirte, 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of the capital Tripoli.
“We bless the victories of our sons on the front lines… in the fight to liberate Sirte and cleanse it” of IS, he said in a televised statement released on the Facebook page of the GNA.
Pro-government troops – a mix of militias and army units – have taken control of Sirte’s port and airport.
But their advance slowed at the end of last week as they reached central and northern parts of the city where IS fighters are holed up in residential areas.
IS attack repelled
“This morning at dawn our forces repelled a new attack by Islamic State in which it attempted to capture the port,” Reda Issa, a spokesman for the unity government’s forces, told AFP on Tuesday.
He said there were injuries among pro-government fighters but did not give more details.
The fighting has left 140 pro-GNA fighters dead and 500 injured, according to medical officials.
Established in Tripoli more than two months ago, Libya’s unity government has been struggling to unify violence-ridden Libya and exert its control over the entire North African country.
Its task is complicated by the presence of a parallel government operating out of eastern Libya, backed by local militias and units of the national army loyal to a controversial general, Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar refuses to recognise the GNA, and considers its forces “militias outside the law”.
“We are following the battle in Sirte… we are watching, and we will see what happens,” Colonel Ahmad al-Mesmari, a spokesman for forces loyal to Haftar, told AFP.
Haftar’s forces have been fighting Islamist and jihadist militias – including IS – for two years in Benghazi, 350 kilometres (220 miles) east of Sirte.
Haftar’s “Libyan Arab armed forces” – equipped with fighter jets, tanks and rocket launchers – have appealed for a lifting of the arms embargo to help his forces fight extremists.
The operation against IS in Sirte enjoys wide support in western Libya, where many welcomed the GNA’s installation in the capital Tripoli on March 30.
Awash with weapons
Haftar has faced growing opposition in Benghazi since the GNA’s installation in Tripoli, said Mohamed Eljarh, a Libya expert at the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East.
He said Haftar’s position is particularly hard “given that forces loyal to the GNA, his main rival, are on the point of liberating the city of Sirte from the clutches of IS.”
Jihadist groups took root in Libya in late 2014, taking advantage of the chaos and power struggles that followed the fall of Muammar Gadaffi’s regime in 2011.
The country is awash with weapons – 20 million pieces of weaponry in a land of six million people, UN envoy Martin Kobler told the Security Council last week.
An arms embargo imposed on Libya in 2011 during the uprising against Gaddafi remains in force.
The resolution due to be adopted at the UN later would grant a 12-month mandate to EU vessels to “inspect vessels bound to, or from Libya which they have reasonable grounds to believe are carrying arms or related material to or from Libya.”
Stronger enforcement of the embargo would limit weapons falling into the hands of IS and other anti-government forces, and could pave the way for an exemption allowing for arms deliveries to the GNA.
According to American officials, there are around 5,000 IS jihadists in Libya. The vast majority, including many foreigners, are in Sirte, which the group seized in 2015.