Forces aligned with Libya’s internationally recognised government seized towns west of Tripoli after heavy clashes and drone strikes, military sources and residents said.
If held, the towns Surman and Sabratha would represent a significant gain for forces fighting a year-long campaign by rivals loyal to eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar.
It could relieve pressure for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), struggling with water and power cuts on top of the loss of revenue from blockaded oil ports in the east.
Libya has been split into rival factions based in Tripoli and the east since 2014, each with parallel sets of institutions. Over the past year fighting escalated and drawn in more foreign involvement as Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) attacked the capital.
On Monday, residents and military sources from both sides said GNA-aligned forces took full control of Surman, west of Tripoli, and Sabratha, just west of Surman. The area was a hub for migrant smuggling and Islamist militants.
Videos online showed GNA fighters shooting in the air near a roundabout in central Sabratha.
The city’s pro-LNA municipal council said dawn drone strikes killed and wounded fighters. “The sound of drones was like a beehive,” said one resident. “There were many air strikes.”
Prisoners were freed from a security building in Surman, according to an LNA military source.
Fractured ground forces struggled to make breakthroughs around Tripoli, relying on help from foreign fighters and drones. The LNA received backing from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Russia, according to UN experts and diplomats, while the GNA is supported by Turkey.
Recent calls for a ceasefire to counter the spread of coronavirus failed to halt violence. Libya has so far reported 25 coronavirus cases, including one death.
In Tripoli, loud explosions and heavy artillery fire could be heard. On Sunday there were clashes south of Misrata, a major base of military support for the GNA.
Power supplies to western areas have been cut since Thursday, when a gas valve was turned off in what the National Oil Corporation called an “illegal closure”.
Water supplies to the capital, turned off by an armed group last week, were back after mediation by local elders, a senior official for Libya’s Great Man Made River, Ahmad al-Deeb, told Reuters.