BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - East Libyan forces on Monday captured a top suspected Egyptian militant long sought by Cairo on charges of orchestrating a deadly desert ambush on police last year and other high-profile attacks, the Libyan military said.
Hisham al-Ashmawy, a former Egyptian special forces officer, was apprehended in the city of Derna, on the coastal road about 265 km (165 miles) west of Libya’s border with Egypt, Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesman Ahmed Mismari said.
His capture is likely to deal a blow to Islamist militants who have been battling the LNA and carrying out attacks across the border into Egypt.
The LNA is the dominant force in Libya’s east. A separate U.N.-backed government rules in the county’s west, while multiple armed groups compete for power seven years after autocrat Muammar Gaddafi was toppled.
The LNA published a picture of Ashmawy with blood on his face, being examined before having bandages applied. It also posted a photo appearing to show his Egyptian military identity card.
He was arrested in Derna’s Al-Maghar neighbourhood “and was wearing an explosive vest but was unable to detonate it,” the LNA said.
It said he would probably be handed over to Egypt after Libyan security officials had completed an investigation.
An Egyptian military source confirmed Ashmawy’s capture to Reuters, without giving further details.
Ashmawy has been convicted in absentia to death in Egypt for attacks in Egypt, including a 2014 raid in which 22 Egyptian military border guards were killed near the frontier with Libya.
The LNA declared that it had taken control of Derna in June from jihadists and other opponents, though sporadic fighting has continued.
Egypt has close relations with the LNA, which is led by Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar, and has in the past launched air strikes over Derna, saying it was targeting jihadists linked to militant activity inside Egypt.
The LNA said the wife and children of a second senior alleged militant, Mohamed Rifae Soroor, named in Egyptian media as Omar Rifae Soroor, were also apprehended. Egyptian state media reported that Libyan forces killed Soroor in June.
Egyptian authorities say Ashmawy heads the Ansar al-Islam network, which claimed responsibility for an ambush against police in Egypt’s Western Desert one year ago.
Egyptian officials also accuse the network, which they link to al-Qaeda, of an assassination attempt on a former interior minister in 2013.
Egyptian security and intelligence sources say the group has mounted a recruiting campaign among former officers in recent years and is seen as more dangerous than militants operating in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
Derna has a recent history of militancy, and was briefly controlled by Islamic State before the ultra-hardline group was pushed out by local rivals in 2015.
Before moving to Derna, Ashmawy was active with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, an Egyptian militant group based in North Sinai, but after it pledged allegiance to Islamic State in 2014, he joined a different group loyal to al-Qaeda.
Militants launched an insurgency in Sinai after Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Mursi was overthrown in 2013, following protests against his rule.
Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi and Ali Abdelaty in Cairo; Writing by Aidan Lewis and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Peter Graff and John Stonestreet