The so-called Islamic State briefly seized Sabratha on Thursday after three of their fighters were captured by a local rival militia, the latest demonstration of their expanding control over the country.
Fighters in more than 20 vehicles drove into the centre of the town, located 70 km west of Tripoli, in a bid to retrieve three of their operatives, one Libyan and two Tunisians, who been kidnapped the night before.
Waving black Islamic flags, they quickly took over the city centre erected two checkpoints in the central al-Khatatba district, while the rest of the cars drove in a convoy through the streets threatening the residents.
According to witnesses passing through the checkpoints, they were majority Tunisians.
“No one stopped them from taking over, we were worried what they would do,” the local told Libya Channel.
“Most of the fighters seemed to be from Tunisia,” he added.
IS’s Libya faction was created in October last year when groups in the eastern city of Derna pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Since then they have expanded their empire into the centre of the country, seizing the coastal city of Sirte and the towns of Nofliya and Hurawa.
But Thursday’s move is the first time the fighters have held the centre of Sabratha, which is significantly more west than their usual territory. Before Thursday they had kept to a series of their training camps located in wooded areas outside of city and by the seaside.
According to Libya Channel sources, closed door meetings took place Thursday afternoon between IS militants and the town’s municipal council to resolve the crisis, as people feared a complete takeover.
After successful negotiations IS returned to their bases.
“The three prisoners were handed back to IS in exchange for them leaving the heart of the city,” said another source.
“But they still have a significant presence in the town,” he said.
Little is known about IS’s capabilities and presence in Sabratha. It is the western most area they hold, and could cause problems for both of the country’s rival governments, as the city lies on the strategic coastal road between Tripoli and the Tunisian border.
The Tunisian authorities said last summer that the IS gunmen responsible for the killings at the February Bardo Museum in Tunis and the June Sousse beach massacre were both trained in Sabratha before crossing back into Tunisia.
Following an IS suicide bombing of a military bus last month in Tunis, the Tunisians shut the border -which has become increasingly porous as Libya has descended back into civil war.
Anchored in the east of the country the internationally-recognised authorities have been near powerless to stop the militants, whose activities are moving increasingly west.
However this week the Libyan air force said it stepped up its airstrikes on IS positions on the eastern cities of Ajdabiya and Benghazi – that now both have significant IS positions.
On Wednesday IS declared that nine of its militants had been killed during the deadly sorties and published photos of the deceased on social media.
Meanwhile Libya’s rival political actors met in Tunis on Thursday for talks on a disputed UN-brokered peace deal to form a unity government and end the civil war.
The internationally community hope that the joint body – comprised of representatives from both sides of the fighting – could unify the country against IS and stop its advancement.
Thursday’s talks in Tunis are aimed at moving forward ahead of a UN-hosted international summit on Libya scheduled for Sunday in Rome. It followed a Tuesday warning – penned by several ambassadors to Libya – against those who attempted to derail the UN-brokered talks and any ongoing discussions.
The UN envoy for Libya, Martin Kobler, and representatives of rival parliaments were attending the talks at a hotel in a Tunis suburb, with foreign diplomats invited as observers.
UNSMIL said the talks could carry on until late Thursday or into Friday morning.