TRIPOLI (AFP) – Forces loyal to Libya’s United Nations (UN)-recognised government said they launched an offensive yesterday for slain dictator Moamer Kadhafi’s hometown Sirte, as rival strongman Khalifa Haftar backed a ceasefire following a string of military setbacks.
Government of National Accord forces have repulsed a 14-month offensive against the capital Tripoli by eastern-based Haftar and are now poised to drive on eastwards taking advantage of stepped up military support from Turkey.
“The air force has carried out five strikes in the outskirts of Sirte” – the last major town before the traditional boundary between Libya’s Tripolitania and Cyrenaica regions – GNA spokesman Mohamad Gnounou said.
“Orders have been given to our forces to begin their advance and to systematically attack all rebel positions,” he added.
Sirte was taken by Haftar’s forces virtually without a fight in January after one of Libya’s myriad local militias switched sides.
Beyond Sirte lies the prize of Libya’s main oil export ports, Haftar’s most important strategic asset.
Some 450 kilometres east of Tripoli, the town was where Kadhafi put up his last stand against NATO-backed rebel forces in 2011 and nostalgia for his ousted regime remains strong.
Haftar’s forces have put a brave face on their precipitate fallback from the west, saying that it was a response to mounting international pressure for a lasting ceasefire.
“Heeding appeals from the major powers and the United Nations for a ceasefire… we pulled back 60 kilometres from the Greater Tripoli city limits,” the general’s spokesman, Ahmad al-Mesmari, said.
“We have asked friendly countries and the United Nations for guarantees… that the other side and the Turkish invaders refrain from attacking us,” he told a news conference late on Friday.