The Libyan army claimed unprecedented gains against Islamist militants in the east of the country, sweeping control of embattled neighborhoods and cutting weapons supply lines in Benghazi, as well as taking back nearby Ajdabiya.
More than 20 soldiers have died since General Khalifa Haftar launched “Operation Martyr’s Blood” on Saturday to chase out groups like Ansar al-Sharia, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Libya, and the so-called Islamic State Group. Top commanders were given “direct orders” not to sleep until the operation was finished, they told Libya Channel.
On Tuesday Special Forces said they had fully re-taken the south-eastern neighborhoods of Laithi and Buatni, that for 16 months had been controlled by Islamist militants, including IS.
It followed the capture of Marissa port, in the west of the city that army officials said was the main supply line of weapons to Ansar al-Sharia and allied armed coalition the Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council.
Meanwhile in Ajdabiya, some 150km west of Benghazi, the army’s Brigade 302 together with neighborhood defense groups and a Salafi brigade successfully seized the strategic town. Residents on the ground confirmed that the army now controls the city.
In Benghazi residents of Buatni and Laithi were able to return for the first time since the area became a battleground in October 2014. Laithi in particular had become known as the jihadi holdout dubbed by locals as “Benghazi’s Kandahar” – a reference to the Afghan province that has seen some of the worst insurgent attacks since the US invasion of 2001.People celebrated in the streets handing out sweets, and beeping their horns while families returned to check their properties, many of which were bombed out shells. Soldiers were filmed touring the neighborhoods in jeeps, waving flags and congratulating each other.
“We liberated Laithi and Buatni this morning, all terrorist groups have retreated to Gawarsha district [in the south-west] due to heavy shelling,” Special Forces Commander Wanis Bukhamada told Libya Channel.
“We are now preparing for a big battle in Gawarsha and Sabri [in the north-east],” he added.
Later on Tuesday reports circulated that the army had successfully taken Sabri district as well as nearby Suq al-Hut as the fighting intensified on the new front.
Clashes meanwhile continued in Tika area in south Benghazi – as well as around the western districts of Ganfuda, Garwarsha and Garyunis – where most of the militants have retreated.
But the army had already made swift gains in Benghazi including taking back former Saiqa Special Forces Camp 319 that had become IS operations room in Buatni, as well as several buildings near the Pepsi factory and the Savings Bank in the same area.
In the days previously the Special Forces had also captured the south-western district of Hawari. They claimed several major locations including the main base of Islamist armed group Rafallah Sahati, the Hawari hospital, which for months had suffered in the fighting, as well as the Saida Aisha mosque, IS heartland. In the same area the army commandeered the headquarters of the Great Man-made River water supply project.
They also pushed West towards al Halis area, that now continues to be the scene of fierce fighting.
In the north the army swept control of Marissa port – which soldiers said was filled with containers of weapons, destined for Ansar al-Sharia and its affiliated armed groups.
Meanwhile Haftar visited Ajdabiya on Sunday together with Fawzi al-Mansuri, head of the Ajdabiya Operations Room, after the army announced it had rid the area of al-Qaeda aligned Ajdabiya Mujahideen Shura Council.
“Ajdabiya is now under the control of the Libyan State,” spokesperson Lieutenant Akram Buhaliga confirmed. Earlier that day they chased militants out of Galuz Street in downtown Ajdabiya and the Industrial Area, the two last strongholds of the ARSC.
Army officials said that the delay in recapturing the areas from militants was due to poor military equipment. Libya is still under a five-year-long UN arms embargo.
“The main hindrance is that the airforce’s planes are old and the terrorists are well armed,” said Mohamed Manfur, Benina airbase commander and commander of Karama Operations Room in Benghazi.
“The Army is still searching for Nasser al-Shaafi, the heroic pilot,“ he added referencing the fighter jet pilot who crashed over IS-held Garyunis district, in west Benghazi in January.
Benghazi has been riven by fighting since Haftar launched his self-proclaimed war on militant groups in May 2014, at the time sparking uproar with the authorities who fired him from the army. As a civil war erupted across the country the parliament voted to reinstate him making him commander-in-chief of the armed forces at the start of 2015.
Haftar has vowed several times to “liberate” Benghazi, but before the latest operation had failed to make significant gains.