BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - A force that controls oil terminals in eastern Libya said it had captured the town of Ben Jawad from Islamic State, pushing the militant group back along a coastal strip they control east of their stronghold of Sirte.
Spokesman Ali al-Hassi said five Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) fighters had been killed and 18 wounded in fierce clashes in the coastal town, and that fighting was continuing in the nearby town of Nawfiliyah.
A Ben Jawad resident told Reuters that PFG forces had entered the town and were combing the area to secure it. If the PFG can hold Ben Jawad it could prove significant, signalling the start of a new front in the campaign against Islamic State.
The PFG has declared its support for Libya’s U.N.-backed unity government. Other brigades that back the government advanced last week to the outskirts of Sirte from the west.
“We launched today’s attack to purge and liberate the central region from Daesh (Islamic State), and secure this area under the umbrella of the ministry of defence and the Presidential Council, the Supreme Commander of the Libyan army,” Hassi said.
The Presidential Council is the unity government’s leadership.
Western states hope the unity government, which arrived in Tripoli at the end of March, can resolve Libya’s political crisis and bring together armed factions to fight Islamic State.
Islamic State took advantage of the security vacuum in Libya to seize control of Sirte last year, extending its presence along about 250 km (155 miles) of coastline either side of the city.
In January the group announced it had established full control over Ben Jawad, about 150 km east of Sirte. It also attacked the oil terminals of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, a little further east, clashing with the PFG and causing extensive damage.
Libya’s unity government is designed to replace two rival administrations, backed by loose alliances of armed brigades, that competed for power from Tripoli, in the west, and from eastern Libya.
But the new government has struggled to win support in the east, where it is still seeking formal backing from the internationally recognised parliament.
Khalifa Haftar, the commander of forces loyal to the eastern government, has so far rejected the Presidential Council and has announced a separate campaign to capture Sirte. His forces have been mobilising close to PFG-controlled territory, but have not so far moved decisively towards the west.
The PFG is a paramilitary force of several thousand men that was set up to protect oil installations in eastern Libya but has acted independently and been split by internal divisions.
The main PFG commander, Ibrahim Jathran, was previously aligned with eastern factions, before switching his allegiance. Jathran has said he is willing to work with the unity government and reopen oil terminals that the PFG has long blockaded.
Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Alison Williams