Last week’s decision by the Shura Council of the Mujahideen of Darnah to rename itself as ‘Darnah’s Protection Force’ has failed to slow down the military campaign launched against the mujahideen by the Libyan National Army (LNA).
This was made abundantly clear today after they suffered major blows as the LNA continued its advance toward the city capturing al-Hilah, some 15 kilometres south of the city and al-Fatayeh (9 km east). Local sources said that the LNA has also captured the suburbs of Sie Aziz, Sie Aoun and al-Khabta.
Today’s gains were made possible by intensified airstrikes which Mohammed Tahir, the spokesman of the mujahedeen council, has claimed that they were carried out by “UAE drones”. Tahir, who made the claim on his Facebook page, posted the names of 6 fighters whom he said were killed by the strikes. The LNA did not seem to have suffered any casualties in today’s operation, according to its spokesman Ahmed Mesmari, speaking in a press conference earlier today in Benghazi.
LNA’s campaign received a major boost last night after Abd al-Aziz Mansi al-Sheikh, one of the city’s tribal leaders, made a televised statement from inside the city expressing support for LNA's offensive, adding that residents of the city were “waiting for the army to liberate them from the terrorists of the mujahedeen council” whom he said were hijacking Darnah by force.
The mujahideen's rebranding move is a classic tactic commonly used by al-Qaeda affiliates in the region most notably by al-Qaeda offshoots in Syria’s Idlib which many see Darnah as its Libyan equivalent. For years this small eastern city has been widely perceived as al-Qaeda’s stronghold in Libya. Darnah’s Abd al-Baset Azzouz, who was described by US sources as the leader of al-Qaeda in Libya, was captured in Turkey in December 2014 and subsequently extradited to Jordan where he was believed to have undergone interrogation by US security operatives.
Darnah was also home to Islamic State’s first Libyan branch before the terror group expanded to other cities. Many of the Islamic State's senior leaders called Darnah their home. It was here that Abu al-Mughirah al-Qahtani, Islamic State’s designated emir of Libya provinces, was killed by a US strike. Credible security sources have confirmed that prominent jihadis from across the region have also visited the city at different stages over the last few years including al-Murabitoun’s Mukhtar Belmukhtar (Algeria), Ansar al-Sharia’s Abu Iyadh al-Tounsi (Tunisia) and al-Qaeda’s Omar Refaai (Egypt). The latter is still living in the city where he acts as the official ideologue of the mujahedeen council.
Photos posted on social media have shown two Libyan militants captured by the LNA during today's operation.