DERNA, Libya (Reuters) - On the front lines of their campaign to take the coastal city of Derna, forces under Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar say they face just a few dozen “remnant” fighters who have deployed snipers and planted explosives to stave off inevitable defeat.
Seizing Derna would complete the takeover of Libya’s east by Haftar, who built up his Libyan National Army (LNA) during three-year campaign for Benghazi, Libya’s second city. But the Derna fighting could also undercut U.N.-led efforts to stabilise Libya by reconciling eastern-based factions aligned with Haftar and rival groups located in the country’s more populous west.
In neighbourhoods of Derna already secured by the LNA, life is slowly returning to streets scarred by recent battles - though fears for those detained by the LNA or trapped by the combat have grown.
“All that’s left of them is around 50 or 60 remnants moving around,” Saleh Faraj, an officer patrolling areas under LNA control, said of the army’s opponents.
“The remnants are still holed up in their last stronghold in the central district because there are buildings there that protect them from armoured vehicles, and they are fighting with snipers.”
The LNA surrounded Derna, a city of 125,000 people, in 2016 and tightened its blockade last year. After launching a ground offensive last month, it now says it is close to capturing the last city in the east of the vast country to elude its control.
Haftar has spurned then internationally backed government in the capital Tripoli and casts himself as a bulwark against Islamist militancy, presenting the battles in Benghazi and Derna as anti-terrorism campaigns.
The LNA says the Derna Protection Force (DPF), the coalition that has held Derna until now and ousted Islamic State from the city in 2015, is fighting with extremists linked to al Qaeda, who have used car bombings and harboured foreign fighters.
Haftar’s opponents in the city deny having associations with jihadists, saying they are fighting to preserve their independence and counter military rule.
LNA forces have been accused of repeated summary killings and other human rights abuses in previous campaigns, and concerns for civilians and detainees in Derna have deepened as the LNA has advanced.
On Wednesday, unverified footage surfaced on social media appearing to show LNA forces carrying out a summary killing in Derna. LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mismari called for a thorough investigation of the footage, and said troops had been ordered to hand over detainees to competent authorities.
The LNA also says it is doing what it can to restore supplies and services to Derna, a Mediterranean port, and encourage the displaced to return.
“There are approximately 30 houses in each street, but only four or five houses on each street are occupied,” said Mohamed Attia Feitouri, a resident of the western Sheiha neighbourhood, which saw heavy fighting in the past week.
“Shops are closed because of a lack of liquidity and food. We have electricity, but in some areas there isn’t any, because one of the distribution boards was hit and has not been fixed yet.”
Between the start of the LNA campaign and June 11, more than 14,000 civilians were displaced, according to the International Organization for Migration. The United Nations has said that some civilians have been prevented from leaving and has reported increasing allegations of arbitrary detentions.
Water supplies in Derna have been cut since a desalination plant was shelled several weeks ago and the only hospital in the city was closed on June 5 due to fighting.
“I’ve been away for 5 days. (I left) after a car bomb exploded here. We were forced to leave, and we just came back now,” said Mabrouk al-Jibani, another Sheiha resident.
“That is my truck over there, but we still haven’t seen the damage. God willing, it will be alright.”
Writing by Aidan Lewis and Mark Heinrich