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Libyan Islamists claim to drive Islamic State from port stronghold

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - A Libyan Islamist militant alliance said it had largely driven Islamic State fighters out of their stronghold city of Derna on Sunday after declaring war on the rival group last week.

Street fighting has raged for several days between members of the local Islamist umbrella group Majlis Mujahideen and Islamic State loyalists, who have been trying to increase their influence in the port city for more than a year.

Derna, a conservative city where Islamist hardliners resisted Muammar Gaddafi before his 2011 fall, was the first place Islamic State tried to gain support in Libya.

A Majlis spokesman told local Libyan Nabaa TV that more than 70 Islamic State militants had surrendered during the fighting, in which some were severely wounded.

“Ninety percent of Derna city is now under the control of Majlis,” he said. “Majlis forces are dealing carefully with the snipers around the city.”

Confirming details on the ground is complicated in places like Derna where there is little state presence. But local residents said on Saturday that armed locals had joined with Majlis forces to push back Islamic State fighters and retake parts of the city.

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Islamist militants including those loyal to Islamic State have profited from the security vacuum in Libya, where two rival governments and their armed forces are battling for control four years after the fall of Gaddafi.

An internationally recognized government works in the east and is backed by some former Gaddafi army loyalists. Another self-declared government has governed Tripoli since a group called Libya Dawn, an alliance of former rebels and Islamist-leaning brigades, took over the capital last summer.

Forces from both governments have been fighting Islamic State but also each other in a conflict where military alliances are often fluid and based on local interests.

Majlis, a hardline Islamist outfit linked to former rebel groups who fought Gaddafi, enjoys some local support in Derna going back to the revolution.

Fighting erupted in the city last week when a Majlis commander was killed and the group declared a holy war against Islamic State fighters. It also captured Islamic State’s Yemeni commander in the city, residents said.

Reporting by Ahmed Elumami; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Digby Lidstone