Libyan forces loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar have taken the strategic military base of Jufra after rival factions withdrew.
The move consolidates control for Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) over the central desert regions of Jufra and Sabha, where they have recently taken a string of towns and bases.
It could also be a key step in the LNA’s stated goal of moving toward Tripoli.
On Friday, after the LNA entered towns just south of Jufra military base, its spokesman said its forces would gradually move towards Bani Walid, nearly 350 km north-west of Jufra.
Jufra is just over 500 km south-west of Benghazi and about the same distance south-east of Tripoli.
The LNA is aligned with a parliament and government based in eastern Libya that has rejected a UN-backed administration in Tripoli.
Haftar met the head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) a month ago in Abu Dhabi, pledging to calm tensions and producing hopes of a political deal that could stabilise the country.
Two weeks later violence escalated in Jufra and Sabha after dozens of fighters loyal to the LNA were killed in a raid on Brak Al-Shati air base near Sabha.
Brigades aligned with the GNA and the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), a force including Islamists and other fighters who fled the LNA’s advances since last year in Benghazi, have since retreated from the area.
Mohamed al-Afirs, LNA 12th Brigade spokesman, said his men found Jufra base deserted when they entered. Local forces aligned with the LNA clashed with the BDB on Friday, but the BDB withdrew towards Misrata, LNA officials said.
The latest LNA advances came after heavy LNA air strikes on Jufra. Egypt has also carried out air strikes in Jufra, as well as in far eastern Derna, which it said targeted militants linked to an attack on Coptic Christians in the southern Egyptian province of Minya.
Analysts say the strikes appear partly designed to help Haftar, a close ally of Egypt.