Eastern-based forces allied with Libyan renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar have slowed down an advance by the country’s internationally recognised government into the strategic city of Sirte, military officials told Al Jazeera.
The Government of National Accord’s (GNA) campaign into central Libya follows the recent capture of the last major stronghold of Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in Tarhuna, where multiple mass grave sites were found southeast of the capital, Tripoli, on Wednesday.
Bolstered by recent battlefield gains and a withdrawal by the LNA from around Tripoli, the GNA’s military launched the operation dubbed Paths to Victory to take Sirte and al-Jufra on Saturday.
“We will enter Sirte. This isn’t a battle for cities like Tripoli or Sirte. It is a fight for Libya, for freedom and democracy,” Abdelmenaam al-Draa, a military spokesman, told Al Jazeera. “We will continue east until we liberate all of Libya from the war criminal Haftar.”
Supported by Turkey, the GNA’s forces gained the upper hand last week after retaking Tripoli airport, all main entrance and exit points to the city, and a string of key towns, forcing Haftar’s fighters to withdraw – defeats their command painted as a tactical measure to give the UN-backed peace process a chance.
GNA military sources, speaking anonymously due to the confidentiality of the information, told Al Jazeera they received air defence systems from Turkey and were working on building up air capabilities in central Libya.
Al Jazeera’s Malik Traina, reporting from Abu Grein outside Sirte, said for the moment the LNA, which is backed by the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Egypt, enjoys air superiority but that is expected to change soon.
“It appears the LNA have been able to slow the GNA’s advance into Sirte because, at the moment, they enjoy the upper hand in air power in central Libya,” he quoted military sources on the ground as saying.
Meanwhile, multiple mass graves have been discovered in Tarhuna and other areas recently retaken from Haftar’s forces.
The Libyan National Commission for the Identification of Missing Persons announced the discovery of 15 bodies out of a hundred reported in Tarhuna, 65 kilometres (40 miles) south of Tripoli.
The GNA said the graves contain the remains of imprisoned government soldiers.
The exact number of bodies has not been made public but officials said the bodies are badly decomposed and cannot be identified.
“So far, two bodies have been exhumed. The region is full of corpses,” Lutfi Tevfik Misrati, head of an office investigating disappeared people in the country, told Anadolu news agency.
“We think that there are 10 to 12 bodies in another grave in the field. Graves were found at five or more different points,” Misrati said. – Al Jazeera