CAIRO (AP) — A Libyan armed group on Friday claimed victory over Italian-backed militias paid to stem the flow of migrants to Europe from the coastal city of Sabratha, a major launch pad for the perilous voyage across the Mediterranean.
The Anti-ISIS Operations Room, created last year to clear Sabratha of Islamic State militants, said in a statement that they and their allies have taken control of the city from the Martyr Anas al-Dabashi (better known as al-Ammu's) and Brigade 48 militias. The weeks-long battle killed dozens and displaced thousands of families.
The Sabratha Municipal Council confirmed the city's capture and congratulated the AIOR on its victory.
Following a popular uprising in 2011 that has plunged the country into chaos, Libya has become a main migrant transit point to Europe as traffickers have exploited the security vacuum.
Over the summer, the two militias struck a deal with Italy through the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord to stop facilitating the flow of migrant boats to the country. Under the deal, the flow of migrants has significantly dropped since July compared to the previous year.
The U.N. migration agency says more than 139,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe by sea since the start of 2017 to Oct. 4, less than half the figure recorded during the same period last year.
But the deal triggered a backlash from other local militias, who feared the empowerment of the al-Ammu and Brigade 48 militias at their expense. Neither militia could be reached for comment.
All factions involved in the weeks-long battle are nominally under the control the GNA, headed by Fayez Serraj, which hailed Friday's developments in Sabratha as "positive." It also pledged cooperation with the AIOR to secure the city.
The statement by Serraj's government made no mention of the deal with Italy, which after the blow to the militias is in disarray.
The fight has also grown more complicated with Libyan military strongman Khalifa Hifter lending his support to the forces fighting al-Ammu's militia. Hifter heads the armed forces based in the east and backed by the eastern-based parliament that is the rival of Serraj's government.
Hifter is deeply unpopular in western Libya, but is seen by some in the eastern region as the country's best hope for defeating Islamic extremists. His forces have been battling militants in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi for the last two years.
In Rome Friday, the leader of Libya's High Council of State Abdulrahmann Swehli met with Italy's Minister of Foreign Affairs Angiolino Alfano to discuss the situation in Libya. Swehli's organization advises the GNA.
"There were attempts to try to exploit the situation from some parts," said Swehli of the battle for Sabratha, "But now the situation in on the way of solving itself to limit the fights."
Alfano said that the terrorism situation in Libya had "significantly improved" over the past two years.
"I believe that the process of political stabilization for Libya is a fundamental element for this battle," added Alfano, "Strong institutions are a more significant bulwark against the terror threat."