Libya militia scramble to halt ISIS advance
06 May 2016, 19:31
Tripoli - Commanders in Libya's third city Misrata rushed militiamen to a key crossroads on Friday after it was overrun by the Islamic State group (ISIS) in an assault in which a suicide bomber killed two police.
The mobilisation came as the UN-backed unity government in Tripoli announced the formation of a new military command to take charge of the battle against the jihadists.
The Abu Grein crossroads lies 120kg south of Misrata where the highway along Libya's Mediterranean coast meets the main road south into the desert interior.
It was captured by ISIS on Thursday in an advance from their stronghold in the city of Sirte 140km to the east.
Misrata hospital said it had received eight dead and 105 wounded from the attack, without specifying whether they were all security force personnel or also included civilians.
The head of the Misrata military council, Colonel Ibrahim Bel-Rajab, said he had ordered all brigades under his command to head to Abu Grein without delay, Libya's LANA news agency reported.
"Numerous armed vehicles of ISIS have been spotted in this area," he said.
Misrata's two main television channels broadcast appeals to militiamen on leave to return to their barracks.
In a statement, ISIS said a Tunisian fighter had blown up a vehicle at the crossroads allowing other fighters to advance and take control of it and five other villages in the area, the SITE Intelligence Group reported.
ISIS captured Sirte in June last year and has since transformed it into a training camp for Libyan and foreign militants.
With its port and airport, there are fears the jihadists could use the city as a staging post for attacks on European soil.
The group is estimated to have around 5 000 fighters in Libya, and is trying to attract hundreds more.
Western powers including the United States, Britain and France have openly considered international military intervention in Libya against ISIS.
They have expressed strong support for the UN-backed unity government which has slowly asserted its authority in the capital Tripoli since the end of March.
The government announced the formation of a new military command to oversee the campaign against ISIS in a statement on its Facebook page on Friday.
The six-member command will be headed by General Bashir Mohammed al-Qadi, it said.
In a speech on April 29, prime minister designate Fayez al-Sarraj warned Libya's myriad of armed groups to take only defensive action against ISIS and launch no offensives until the new command was formed.
The North African nation has been dominated by rival militias since the 2011 overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Gadaffi and Sarraj's government still faces a rival administration with its own armed forces in the east.
The unity government fears that separate operations against ISIS in Sirte could spark clashes between rival armed groups and play into the jihadists' hands.