Libyan army officials said they are on the verge of “liberating” Derna from Islamic State militants, after their troops recaptured areas just west of the coastal city, that has witnessed a massive anti-IS uprising in the last week.
Speaking to Libya Channel, Abdel-Karim Sabra, the spokesman for Operation Omar Mokhtar – a months-long military campaign to clear Derna of jihadists – said on Wednesday they had secured Ras Hilal and Lathurn, which lie between 50 – 35km west of the town.
“We attacked from three sides, two from the top of the Green Mountains and from the coastal route and we liberated the two areas,” the spokesman said.
“We plan to advance on Derna in the next few days,” he added.
The areas – although not entirely controlled by IS – house sprawling farms where jihadists have anchored their headquarters for years, as an insurgency has flourished in the east since the 2011 uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
Last October, when several extremist groups in the Derna wider region pledged allegiance to IS’s emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Ras Hilal and Lathrun became a hub of activity for the global jihadist organization.
Derna, IS’s stronghold city in the east, has witnessed fierce clashes since last Wednesday when local residents – fed up of the group’s brutal behavior – and rival jihadist militias joined forces to kick them out of the town.
Fighting initially erupted after IS militants killed three top jihadist commanders from the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, an al-Qaeda linked umbrella group that refused al-Baghdadi and IS’s Derna-based Yemeni emir, and Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, another Islamist militia which has also rejected IS.
Locals started attacking IS checkpoints after news broke the Derna Shura Council’s Nasr al-Akar and Faraj al-Houti and Martyrs Brigade’s Salim Darbi were killed.
Eyewitnesses in the city told Libya Channel the two groups had armed citizens.
IS has reputedly lost its temporary headquarters at the Pearl Hotel, its Sharia Law courthouse and prison and the main al-Harish hospital.
Photographs were spread on social media showing jubilant residents replacing the ubiquitous black IS banners with the Libyan flags and cleaning the main mosque used for beheadings. IS fighters were reportedly forced out of the central areas and scattered into the neighborhoods where they live.
The loss of Derna would be a huge blow to Libya’s IS chapter, which has also seized territory in the south and west. In February and April it claimed responsibility for the execution of over 50 Egyptian, Ethiopian and Eritrean Christian migrants and threatened to attack Italy, which lies just a few hours across the Mediterranean.