Islamic State militants in Libya attempted to seize fresh territory south of Tripoli on Wednesday, kidnapping policemen at a new checkpoint on a major road and attacking forces loyal to the internationally-recognized government.
Heavily armed militants in pick-up trucks set up a roadblock on the main desert road to Sebha, close to al-Garyat village, in an area known as Marsit valley some 300km south of the capital.
Eyewitnesses told reporters that the militants, some of whom spoke with Tunisian and Algerian dialects, stopped all cars and interrogated passengers. They confiscated music CDs and cigarette packages and asked people if they had a military IDs and if they worked for security forces.
One eyewitness said he saw two handcuffed men with police uniforms in one of the cars, which were covered in IS slogans.
Four people were reported kidnapped from the checkpoint, including at least one police officer from the area.
The Tripoli Operations Room – under the command of army chief General Khalifa Haftar – issued a statement on Wednesday confirming reports of the new checkpoint set up by what it called an “unknown armed group”, as well as the disappearance of two police from al-Garyat. The army sent out reconnaissance planes to track the militants, along with ground support by security forces from the area.
A firefight erupted with the security forces, injuring two personnel.
It marks the first time IS – that is largely anchored in Sirte – has shown presence in the area, and signals another possible expansion of their presence in beleaguered Libya, in particular the scarcely inhabited and poorly monitored center and south of the country.
On Wednesday IS also attacked a checkpoint south of Misrata, which is controlled by forces loyal to Libya’s rival government in Tripoli.
Three Misratan security personnel were killed in the clashes at the Abu Grain checkpoint that is about halfway between Misrata and Sirte. Fighting erupted in the afternoon hours after airstrikes hit positions in Sirte, killing three children and wounding their mother.
There was no confirmation from Misrata that they were behind the airstrikes in Sirte – but they regularly carry out air raids on the IS stronghold.
The three strikes hit different parts of the city including near a water plant where the children were killed and close to a hotel complex in the city centre.