Forces aligned with Libya’s internationally recognised government said they had advanced on Saturday on Tarhouna, a key support base for their eastern-based rival Khalifa Haftar.
The advance comes days after forces loyal to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) had pushed back Haftar’s allies along the coast west of the capital, marking a possible turning point in their attempt to fend off a year-long offensive by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).
Tarhouna, about 65 km (45 miles) southeast of the capital, Tripoli, has been a crucial asset for the LNA, providing local manpower for a campaign that has leaned heavily on air support supplied by the United Arab Emirates as well as Russian military contractors.
GNA attempts to swing Tarhouna to its side have failed. The GNA has depended on military support including drone strikes provided by Turkey, which has stepped up its involvement in Libya’s conflict this year.
One witness from Tarhouna said residents had heard loud blasts from Saturday morning, followed by the sound of intensive clashes in an outlying area of the town that continued for up to six hours.
LNA officials told Reuters the GNA forces had failed to enter the town and that the offensive, the first since Haftar launched his military bid for Tripoli in early April 2019, had been repelled. They also said they had shot down a drone.
LNA forces control eastern and southern Libya and have been positioned around the outskirts of Tripoli for a year. The capital has seen heavy bombardment in recent days, and shelling continued on Saturday, wounding at least 10 civilians, local medics said.
The GNA has also been trying to capture al-Watiya airbase, about 125 km (80 miles) southwest of Tripoli and the LNA’s other strategic foothold in Tripoli.
Libya is struggling to prepare for the expected spread of the new coronavirus, and the GNA on Friday imposed a 24-hour curfew in western regions it controls for 10 days. Libya has confirmed 49 cases, including one death.
Libya slid into turmoil after the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled former ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Since 2014 rival factions based in Tripoli and the east have vied for power.