Libyan forces aligned with the internationally recognised government claim to have retaken Gharyan, a strategic town where rival leader Khalifa Haftar’s fighters were stationed.
Gharyan is the main forward base for Haftar’s eastern-based Libya National Army (LNA), which has been fighting to take control of the capital Tripoli.
“Gharyan is under our total control,” Mustafa al-Mejii, spokesman for forces loyal to the Government of National Accord (GNA), told AFP news agency on Wednesday.
Dozens of LNA rebels were killed and at least 18 were taken prisoner, he added.
The claim came after a spokesman for Haftar’s forces accused “sleeper cells” of allowing GNA forces to enter part of Gharyan, 100 kilometres southwest of Tripoli, without admitting the loss of the town.
He said the fighting was ongoing and that the situation was under control, AFP reported.
Mejii, the government spokesman, hailed what he described as a “significant victory” and said he expects Haftar’s forces to “collapse”.
Fighting around Tripoli began in early April, when Haftar started an offensive against the GNA.
While GNA forces on the outskirts of the capital have slowed Haftar’s advance, at least 739 people have been killed and more than 4,400 wounded since the fighting began, according to the World Health Organization.
Haftar, a retired general who had taken part in the revolt against Gaddafi, unleashed an offensive in May 2014 to purge Libya of what he branded as “terrorists”.
After a rapid advance from east and south of the country, Haftar seized Gharyan on 2 April, and two days later launched the offensive on Tripoli.
But Haftar forces have been halted on the southern outskirts of the capital by fighters who back the GNA.
Although the US officially backs Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s government, Sarraj’s administration has accused Western powers, especially France, of covertly backing Haftar.
In April, after US President Donald Trump spoke on the phone with the militia leader, the White House said in a statement that Trump “recognised Field Marshall Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources”.
Libya’s Haftar loses main base in Tripoli in surprise blow
Forces allied to Libya’s internationally recognized government on Wednesday seized the town of Gharyan south of Tripoli, home to the main supply base of eastern forces attacking the capital, witnesses and Tripoli officials said.
The takeover of Gharyan by Tripoli forces is a major blow to the eastern-based Libya National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar, which on April 4 started an offensive to take Tripoli from the internationally recognized administration.
The offensive has not advanced beyond Tripoli’s southern suburbs, and the frontline had not changed significantly for weeks.
Gharyan was until Wednesday the main forward base for the LNA where troops, weapons and ammunition arrived from the East. The LNA began its Tripoli campaign here.
Forces allied to the Tripoli government, backed by air strikes, stormed the town, some 90 km (56 miles) south of Tripoli, in the morning in a surprise attack, witnesses said.
They took the central operations room of the LNA, which by evening had left the town, they added. Gharyan is also home to field hospitals and there is a helicopter base outside the town.
The Tripoli-based Presidential Council in charge of the government said in a statement Gharyan had been fully “liberated”.
One of its members, Mohammed al-Ammari, warned in a separate statement against any revenge attacks.
The LNA still holds the town of Tarhouna southeast of Tripoli, its second main position in the campaign.
“This is a game changer,” said Tarek Megerisi, a policy fellow with the North Africa and Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“If Haftar can’t retake it quickly (which is doubtful) Tarhouna and the remaining LNA units will be more isolated, under resourced and with lower morale,” he said.
There was no immediate comment from the LNA, whose spokesman Ahmed Mismari had hours earlier said that an attack by Tripoli forces had been repelled.
Haftar and his backers say they are trying to free the capital from militias which they blame for destabilizing Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011.
Haftar’s critics accuse him of trying to seize power through force and deepening a conflict between factions based in the east and west of the sprawling North African country.
Haftar’s offensive has upended United Nations-led plans to stabilize Libya after years of conflict that have left the oil-rich nation divided and caused living standards to plummet.
The conflict risks disrupting oil production, creating a vacuum exploited by militants and prompting more migrants to leave for Italy by boat.