TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan forces battled to clear Islamic State insurgents from the western city of Sabratha on Thursday, in fighting that killed at least three Libyans and one of the militants, officials said.
Islamic State has gained ground rapidly in Libya in the last year, controlling the city of Sirte and attacking oil ports, as it takes advantage of the conflict between the country’s two rival governments and their armed factions.
U.S. warplanes hit Islamic State in Sabratha last week, a sign of growing Western engagement against the militant group in Libya as it expands beyond its original territory in Iraq and Syria.
Fighting began in Sabratha on Tuesday, when militants stormed into the city, beheading 11 local security men before retreating after clashes with local Sabratha brigades. Islamic State is also fighting in Benghazi to the east.
“A military operation has been started to wipe out the militants of Islamic State in Sabratha,” Sabratha municipal council major Hussein al-Thwadi told Reuters. “At least three of our fighters have been killed and ten wounded.”
A militant commander was captured on Thursday, Thwadi said. A would-be Islamic State suicide bomber was also killed, before he could set off his explosives.
Worried about the group’s spread, Western officials say they are discussing air strikes and special forces operations against Islamic State in Libya, where militants exploited a breakdown of order since the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
In Benghazi, Libyan special forces commander Wanis Bukhamada told Reuters that French military advisers have been helping coordinate Libyan forces fighting Islamic State insurgents in the eastern city. He said the French advisers were not fighting.
Later, the Libyan National Army leadership denied any French forces were with their forces in Benghazi. LNA media office manager Khalifa Al-Abeedi said the forces “firmly denied” any French military or advisers were aiding or fighting with them.
The French newspaper Le Monde reported on Wednesday that French special forces and intelligence commandos were engaged in “a secret war” against Islamic State in Libya, in conjunction with the United States and Britain. France’s Defence Ministry declined comment on the report.
Libyan military forces in Benghazi are under the command of General Khalifa Haftar and are loyal to the government based in the eastern city of al-Bayda. A rival armed faction took over the capital, Tripoli, in the west in 2014 and declared itself the government.
Haftar’s forces have been advancing against Islamic State in Benghazi, the biggest eastern city, taking back neighborhoods that have been under militant control for months.
Last Friday, a U.S. air strike targeted Islamist militants in Sabratha, killing more than 40. Two kidnapped Serbian diplomats may also have been killed in that raid, though an investigation into their deaths is continuing.
Western officials say any deeper international military involvement, such as training missions or a proposed Italian-led security stabilization force, will require a request from a U.N.-backed Libyan national unity government.
The United Nations has been trying to bring the country’s rival factions together in such a government. A presidential council has been formed, but hardliners are resisting a vote in Libya’s elected parliament to approve the new government.
Reporting by Ayman El Warfalli in Benghazi and Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Larry King