Forces allied to Libya‘s UN-recognised government say they have retaken Gharyan, a strategic town south of the capital, Tripoli, although forces loyal to renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar denied the claims.
Gharyan is the main forward base for the eastern-based Libya National Army (LNA) under Haftar which has been fighting to take control of Tripoli.
Mustafa al-Mejii, spokesman for forces loyal to the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord, told AFP news agency: “Gharyan is under our total control.”
Dozens of pro-Haftar fighters were killed and at least 18 were taken prisoner, he said.
The claim came after the spokesman for Haftar’s forces accused “sleeper cells” of allowing Government of National Accord (GNA) forces to enter part of Gharyan, 100 kilometres southwest of Tripoli, without admitting the loss of the town.
He said the fighting was ongoing and that the situation was under control.
Witnesses told Reuters that GNA troops seized the main operations room of the LNA in Gharyan, as well as LNA vehicles and other gear. The town hosts LNA field hospitals and is also where supplies arrive from the east.
The LNA has set up a helicopter base outside the town.
Images were circulated on social media networks of GNA forces patrolling Gharyan and of prisoners said to be pro-Haftar fighters.
Mejii hailed what he described as a “significant victory” and said he now expected Haftar’s forces to “collapse”.
Libya has been mired in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, with a multitude of militias vying for control of the oil-rich country.
Haftar, a retired general who took part in the revolt against Gaddafi, unleashed an offensive in May 2014 to purge Libya of armed groups he branded “terrorists”.
After a rapid advance from the east and south of the country, Haftar seized Gharyan on April 2, and two days later launched an offensive on Tripoli where the GNA is based.
But counter-attacks by forces loyal to the GNA have resulted in a stalemate on the capital’s southern outskirts.
The battle for Tripoli has killed over 650 people, including combatants and civilians, according to the World Health Organization. More than 94,000 have been displaced by the fighting.