Fighters aligned with Libya’s United Nations-backed unity government are advancing along the Mediterranean coast toward the Daesh stronghold of Surt, signaling the first major assault on territory that, since last year, has become the terrorist group’s largest base outside of Iraq and Syria.
Two separate militia forces have fought their way toward the city in recent days, attacking from both the east and the west, in apparently uncoordinated attacks that have reduced the length of Libyan coastline controlled by Daesh to 100 miles from about 150 miles.
On Wednesday, one of the militias claimed to have seized control of Surt’s power plant, 20 miles west of the city, New York Times reported.
Those victories occurred in sparsely populated areas, and it was unclear whether the militias had either the strength or the will to push into Surt, which is thought to be heavily fortified and also harbor several thousand foreign fighters.
But the advance did signal a new setback for Daesh at a time when it is already under concerted attack in Falluja, Iraq, and in parts of Syria.
Analysts and diplomats warn that while the offensive addresses the West’s biggest concern in Libya, it also risks destabilizing the fragile peace effort by fostering violent competition between rival groups.
Over the past year, Surt, the hometown of the ousted Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, has become a preoccupation for Western countries worried that it could become a refuge for militants fleeing Iraq and Syria.