The Military Command of the Libyan army officially ordered units to move on Islamic-State held Sirte on Wednesday defying orders of the Tripoli-based unity government to hold fire.
It came as units loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, the parliament-appointed chief of the military, clashed with rival armed groups in the southern town of Zalla, as units passed through en route to the central jihadi town.
Several thousand soldiers have began moving on the jihadi stronghold, via the southern route, and via the main coastal road, security sources told Libya Channel. There are also at least 700 troops, based south-west of Sirte who are poised for the offensive, army officials also told.
The operation dubbed “Gardabia 2” references a 1915 battle in Sirte of the same name which saw Libyans successfully unite against the Italian occupying forces, causing them to withdraw past the western city of Misrata and costing them 500 men.
Haftar’s forces said they hope to recreate what is considered one of Libya’s greatest victories, and vanquish Libya’s newest foreign interlopers: IS.
Calling the battle for Sirte a “sacred national duty” army spokesperson Colonel Ahmed Mismari said troops were “accumulating across Libya”.
“There are units from the south and also from the west, the areas of Zintan and Rujban, also from Bani Walid,” he said. “To sum it up, Libya will be reliving that date: 1915,” he added.
This is despite warnings from the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli that any unilateral efforts to move on the jihadi-held town would be considered a breach of military law.
Tuesday’s clashes, which took place 400 kilometers south of Sirte, erupted as army brigades reached Zalla.
Forces loyal to Ziyad Belaam, a senior commander in armed coalition Benghazi’s Revolutionaries Shura Council, attacked the army units near the town.
The Shura Council, which has been fighting Haftar’s forces in Benghazi since May 2014, is allied with Libya Dawn; a western armed coalition which held Tripoli between 2014 to the start of this year when thee UN-backed unity government took over.
Sources in the area told Libya Channel that Misrata had mistakenly believed the increased presence of Haftar’s forces in Zalla indicating they were launching an offensive against their traditional foes rather than Sirte-based jihadists.
Misratan fighters jets are believed to have been behind an airstrike on soldiers yesterday.
Colonel Mismari said in a Tuesday press conference that “direct skirmishes” erupted 25km west of Zalla when Belaam’s scouting units collided with army units protecting the oil fields.
As the clashes escalated both sides sent reinforcements. The army sent units which were protecting nearby Marada and units from their forces headed to Sirte.
“By 2 o’clock, the commander of the Sirte Operations room ordered them to crush this offensive, so we imprisoned a large number of them some, they have left their vehicles behind,” he told.
But according to a Misratan official speaking to Libya Herald, Belaam’s men had targeted fighters from the Sudanese rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) which he claimed was now fighting for Haftar. He added that following the fighting, Belaam’s men had pulled back but had managed to capture 10 vehicles from JEM.
In the past, the army has repeatedly attacked JEM forces who were allegedly used by toppled leader Muammar Gaddafi during the 2011 Revolution. Mismari dismissed the accusations that Sudanese fighters were involved as propaganda.
The skirmishes have not stopped the offensives, officials assured.
Akram Abuhaliga, spokesperson for the army units in Ajdabiya told Libya Channel that Brigade 240 will be moving in the direction of Zalla soon.
Mismari said forces were also amassing in Marada.
“Troops will be moving towards the city of Sirte to liberate it soon,” said Abuhliga. “There will be a chance for all cities to participate in liberating the city. There is a complete plan for Sirte,” he told.