May 25, 2017 / 1:01 PM / 3 months ago

East Libyan forces claim control of disputed southern air base

BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - A brigade loyal to east Libyan forces said they had taken full control of an air base in southern Libya on Thursday following a long-standing dispute with a rival faction from the western city of Misrata.

Forces loyal to the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) posted videos and pictures showing them driving into Tamanhent air base, which had previously been controlled by the Third Force, early in the morning. Tamanhent appeared to be empty as LNA forces entered.

Taking Tamanhent, about 20 miles (32 km) northeast of the oasis city of Sabha, extends LNA's reach in Libya's central desert.

The region has become a flashpoint between forces loyal to the LNA and their western-based opponents, some of them aligned with the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

The two sides represent the main factions in a sporadic conflict between shifting alliances that have fought for power in Libya since 2014.

The LNA is led by eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar and has been pushing west and south since late last year. It has rejected the GNA and repeatedly said it expects to control the capital, Tripoli, though many doubt its ability to do so.

On Wednesday, officials from another brigade aligned with the LNA said the Third Force had also withdrawn from Sharara oil field, which lies west of Sabha, suggesting a broader retreat in the region. No one from the Third Force could immediately be reached for comment.

Last Thursday the Third Force briefly overran another air base at Brak Al-Shati, about 37 miles (60 km) northwest of Tamanhent, killing dozens of LNA troops.

The mayor of Brak Al-Shati said that as of Wednesday 95 bodies had been brought to hospital, though the LNA has said that as many as 141 people were killed.

The LNA, which said unarmed troops and civilians were among the victims, has carried out a series of air strikes in the region of Jufra, about 175 miles (280 km) northeast of Sabha, which is still controlled by its rivals.

The GNA condemned the air strikes on Thursday, saying they had caused "the intimidation and injury of innocent citizens" in a region that was neutral.

"We call for an immediate end to this bombing in order to preserve civil peace and to prevent bloodshed," it said in a statement.

Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli; Writing by Aidan Lewis, editing by Pritha Sarkar

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