Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar’s forces Monday seized the coastal city of Sirte from factions loyal to the Tripoli government, raising tensions as Turkey said it was deploying troops in the North African country.
Sirte, some 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of the capital Tripoli, had been held since 2016 by forces allied with the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
But on Monday, a spokesman for Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) said the city had fallen to his fighters within hours.
“Sirte has been totally liberated,” Ahmad al-Mesmari announced on television.
“The operation was quick and lasted only three hours,” Mesmari said, although preparations had started months earlier with air strikes on positions of pro-GNA forces.
He said Haftar loyalists struck from five land and sea positions and had air cover. He did not give further details.
The GNA did not immediately confirm the fall of Sirte, but a pro-GNA military commander in the city, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the loss.
The oil-rich North African country has been plunged into chaos since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that killed longtime dictator Moamer Gathafi.
It is now divided between the GNA based in the capital Tripoli and Haftar’s forces in the east and which also control most of the country’s south.
Tensions escalated last year when Haftar launched an operation in January to “purge” southern Libya “of terrorist groups and criminals” and seized several towns with support from local tribes.
Haftar then set his eyes on Tripoli, launching an offensive on the capital in April to unseat the GNA.
The GNA has sought help from Turkey, whose parliament passed a bill allowing the government to send troops to Libya to shore up the Tripoli government.
On Sunday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his soldiers had begun deploying in Libya.
Fears of escalation
Although there has been no immediate confirmation from Tripoli of that deployment, Turkey’s involvement has raised concern among Libya’s neighbours and in Europe.
Egypt said it will hold a meeting Wednesday with the foreign ministers of France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus for talks on “ways to push efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement” in Libya.
Algeria, which on Monday hosted GNA prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj as well as Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, urged the UN Security Council to impose a ceasefire in Libya.
The European Union, for its part, expressed concern over an “imminent” escalation of violence around Tripoli.
While the GNA is backed by Turkey and Qatar, Haftar has the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
On Friday, Haftar urged all Libyans to take up arms in response to any Turkish involvement in his country.
Sirte was at one stage a bastion of the Islamic State group which moved into Libya amid the chaos that followed Gathafi’s ouster.
IS controlled Sirte from early 2015 until the GNA, backed by US air strikes, evicted the jihadists in a seven-month battle that cost hundreds of lives.
Haftar’s LNA earlier Monday said on social media they were “steadily advancing towards the heart of Sirte” after seizing control of Ghardabiya airport on the outskirts.
It said forces at the airport surrendered with their equipment and reported clashes in several parts of Sirte.