Forces aligned with Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord said they withdrew from the strategic coastal city Sirte to avoid bloodshed, after their eastern rivals entered it and took control.
Holding Sirte would be an important gain for eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar, who since April has waged a military offensive on Tripoli, home to the GNA, to extend his control across the vast, mainly desert country.
Sirte is just west of important oil export terminals, controlled by Haftar, and strategically positioned on supply routes between eastern, western and southern Libya.
The advance of Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) comes as Turkey prepares to send military advisors and experts to Libya to shore up the GNA, part of rising international involvement in Libya’s conflict.
“Our forces took a decision, after studying the situation, to withdraw outside Sirte and await orders,” the Sirte Protection Force, a GNA ally, said in a statement.
“Our forces retain full capabilities and the withdrawal from Sire is not the end,” it added.
The LNA said it took Sirte in a swift advance preceded by air strikes.
Sirte is in the centre of Libya’s Mediterranean coast and has been controlled by GNA-aligned forces since they ejected Islamic State from the city with the help of US air strikes in 2016.
The Sirte Protection Force said it withdrew “to save the blood of civilians and the youth of the forces” in Sirte, adding the LNA had help from “sleeper cells” in the city of 120 000.
Many Sirte Protection Force fighters are from Misrata, a city that led the campaign against Islamic State and a key source of military power for the GNA.
On Tuesday, an LNA military source said LNA forces clashed with Misratan forces in Abu Grain area, between Sirte and Misrata.
The Sirte Protection Force accused LNA fighters of burning homes and committing theft and looting in Sirte after entering the city. Forces loyal to Haftar denied any violations.
“These are neither our actions or the Libyan army’s actions. On the contrary, we were received with cheers,” an LNA spokesman told Reuters.
Since launching a campaign for Benghaziin 2014, Haftar gradually expanded territorial control across the north African country.
Haftar’s LNA has received material and military support from countries including the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt, according UN experts and diplomats.