Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1380, (8 - 14 February 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1380, (8 - 14 February 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The fight for Derna

As the Libyan army prepares to retake Derna from militant Islamists, fears are that renewed conflict could spill over more widely among sharply polarised national political currents, writes Kamel Abdallah


The fight for Derna
The fight for Derna

اقرأ باللغة العربية

The Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar is preparing to retake Derna from the Shura Council of Mujahideen (SCM), a coalition of Islamist militias that refuse to recognise any of the current political and security entities in Libya. The SCM has controlled the eastern Libyan port city for more than two years. In mid-2015, it succeeded in expelling the Libyan franchise of the Islamic State group (IS), which had established its first stronghold in Libya in Derna.

On Friday, Haftar met with high-ranking LNA commanders at the Abraq Airbase to discuss military arrangements to regain control of Derna. Present at the meeting were Operation Dignity operations room commander Abdel-Salam Al-Hassi, operations room commander Omar Mukhtar Salem Al-Rafadi, LNA Chief of Staffs Abdel-Razeq Al-Nazouri, Libyan Air Force Chief of Staffs Saqr Al-Geroushi, head of the Organisation and Administration Authority General Kamal Al-Jabali and other senior officers.

There followed reports of a military build-up around Derna, which has been surrounded by LNA forces for more than a year, enforcing a tight blockade around the city.

Several days before this, the bodies of three civilians from Derna were discovered. According to news reports, they were executed by SCM in Derna on grounds of having collaborated with the army.

On Sunday, UN Envoy for Libya and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) Ghassan Salamé wrote on his Twitter account: “When I hear the clatter of weapons I think, firstly, of civilians, of their right to life, of the substance of international law which prohibits harm to them, of the likelihood of war crimes against them and of the duty to protect them which the international community cannot ignore without loss to itself.”

The UN official’s tweet sounded a warning of an impending re-escalation in armed conflict in Libya. A recent resurgence in rhetoric threatening recourse to violence forebodes a return to the preference for military means to resolve longstanding political and social problems and disputes against the backdrop of sharp polarisation that continues to grip the country despite the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement that Libyan factions signed more than two years ago in Skhirat, Morocco.

On Sunday, the LNA General Command reassigned the 210th Infantry Brigade from oil facilities in the petroleum crescent area to Derna in order to support the forces surrounding that city.

The army has carried out frequent air raids against Derna during the past two years, targeting bases and locations of SCM in the city and its suburbs. The raids, however, often struck civilian targets. The most recent incident of this sort occurred 31 October, precipitating international outcry. Since then, the army reduced its aerial attacks against the city.

On Sunday, officials from the Omar Al-Mukhtar operations room, which oversees military operations in Derna and its environs, issued a warning on Facebook, cautioning civilians in the city to remain clear of “terrorist locations and collection points” which would become “legitimate targets for heavy artillery and the air force.”

The LNA General Command’s press bureau also released a statement on its Facebook page Sunday, reporting that the missile artillery unit of the 106th Infantry Brigade had reached Derna, “in order to take part in the military operations”. It added that the force had already begun “to carry out its duties in accordance with instructions from General Command”.

Meanwhile, on Friday and Saturday last week LNA contingents clashed with IS militants on the road between the villages of Zallah and Marada, which is located to the south of Libya’s strategic petroleum crescent region. Several dead and wounded were reported on both sides.

The skirmishes began Friday evening and resumed the following day. Two Libyan army soldiers were killed Friday and three more died in the fighting Saturday. Military officials announced that among those killed on the other side was an IS field commander.

The LNA contingents that were involved in that battle in the desert area south of the petroleum crescent, where IS had become active following its expulsion from Sirte, consisted of forces from Al-Jafra operations room, the 128th Infantry Brigade and the Marada Combat, Zallah Martyrs and Al-Dahra Martyrs regiments. They engaged with IS gunmen near Al-Dahra oil field, which is located midway along the Marada-Zallah road, while the military was conducting an extensive combing operation there. The oil field is operated by Waha Oil Company, a joint venture project between the Libyan National Oil Organisation and three US firms: ConocoPhillips, Marathon and Hess Corporation.

A Libyan military source told the Libyan Bawabat Al-Wasat news site that the military had been able to identify the IS field commander who had been killed in the fighting. Describing him as a “senior field commander in IS”, the source said his name was Ahmed bin Nasser. He originally came from Al-Sabri district of Benghazi and had fought in the ranks of Ansar Al-Shariah group before joining IS.

Last week’s clashes refocussed attention on the activity of IS in the desert area south of the petroleum crescent, an economically vital region known for its four major oil exporting ports. It is feared that the terrorist organisation could pose a threat to Libya’s major industry and primary source of revenues at a time of increasingly severe economic straits.

Since IS’s expulsion from Sirte the US has staged aerial raids against areas in central Libya targeting IS camps and movements in order to prevent members of the organisation from regrouping and attempting to attack other areas. The last such raid occurred in mid-November last year. On 17 and 19 November, US forces conducted a strike against IS militants in Fuqaha, approximately 500 kilometres south of Sirte, according to a press release issued by US Africa Command (AFRICOM) at the time.

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