Libyan Fighters Say They've Captured Smuggling Hub of Sabratha

(Bloomberg) -- An alliance of Libyan fighters said it took the coastal city of Sabratha after three weeks of deadly clashes with a rival militia, highlighting the increasingly fractured landscape of the North African oil producer.

The alliance, known as the Anti-ISIS Military Operation Room, since mid-September has been battling the Martyr Anas al-Dabashi Brigade in Sabratha, which lies 70 kilometers west of Tripoli and is a major smuggling hub of people and goods. At least 39 people have been killed, while some 3,000 others have fled the area, according to local health officials.

“The behavior of the brigade was unbearable and led to insecurity in the city,” Saleh Graisia, an alliance spokesman, said by phone. “Our forces have expanded their control over the city, and now are dealing with small pockets of resistance.”

Both the Operation Room and the Dabashi brigade are affiliated with the Government of National Accord of United Nations-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, according to Graisia. He denied reports the alliance is loyal to the eastern-based Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an opponent of Serraj’s administration.

The Dabashi brigade was involved in migrant smuggling until this summer when its leader, Ahmed al-Dabashi, forged a deal with the GNA to block illegal departures in return for protection from prosecution and jobs in the security forces. Dabashi this week discussed his activities in an interview with the local 218 TV.

Mohamed al-Shibani, an analyst based in the western city of Misrata, said some smugglers whose business were affected after Dabashi agreed to the amnesty were among the Operation Room fighters. It’s very dangerous “to give those gangs any legitimacy,” he said. “Human trafficking hubs will turn into strategic points of power like oil terminal in the east, and whomever controls them with have a say in Libyan politics.”

The vast majority of African migrants trying to reach Europe by boat have passed through Libya, departing from Sabratha as well as nearby Qarabulli and Zuwara. The number of crossings dropped in July, which observers say is a result of efforts by Libya’s European Union-trained coastguard and the Dabashi brigade’s new policy.

The clashes erupted on Sept. 17 after gunmen from the Dabashi brigade killed two Operation Room fighters at one of the city’s checkpoints. As the fighting raged, set Dabashi fire to his house before fleeing the city and heading west on Friday, Graisia, the Operation Room spokesman said.