libya flag, oružje.jpg
Photograph: Photo by BRQ Network, used under CC BY

Libya's UN-backed unity government claimed advances against Islamic State on Wednesday, saying its forces had taken three towns near the extremist group's stronghold of Sirte, while the jihadists struck back with a massive suicide attack killing more than 20 troops.

Forces loyal to the nascent national unity government based in the capital Tripoli took full control of the towns of Abugrein, al-Washka and Wadi Zamzam, which Islamic State forces had seized in coordinated attacks earlier this month, state news agency LANA reported, citing pro-government military sources.

The advance against Islamic State followed a massive attack launched this week by the pro-government troops and allied militiamen, backed by warplanes.

The forces were fighting extremists near the checkpoint of al-Khamees, located around 50 kilometres west of the coastal city of Sirte, Islamic State’s stronghold in Libya, a local official said.

The surprise onslaught prompted militants to flee the three towns, Mohammed al-Jali, the local official in Abugrein, told independent website al-Wasat. They left behind dozens of bodies of their comrades in their rush, he said.

At least six pro-government fighters, including a colonel, were killed in Tuesday's fighting, according to the report. 

The jihadists struck back on Wednesday evening using one of their favoured tactics, a suicide car bomb attack on a checkpoint between Sirte and Misrata manned by Misratan troops.

Hospital officials in Misrata, the main military powerhouse of western Libya whose commanders largely back the unity government, said more than 20 troops were killed in the attack.

Supporters of the Islamic State extremist group, which has previously targeted checkpoints around Misrata, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement circulated on social media.

dpa was not able to independently authenticate the statement, which also claimed a second suicide attack in the area, but it was consistent with previous claims by the group.

Libya has been in turmoil since the 2011 revolt, which toppled long-time dictator Moamer Gaddafi.

Islamic State has taken advantage of the chaos to establish a foothold in the oil-rich country.

The al-Qaeda splinter group has been in control of Sirte for more than a year, and there are reports that it has been moving leaders and fighters from its main territory in Iraq and Syria to the North African state.

The claim of responsibility for Wednesday's bombing listed two suicide attackers, whose names suggested that one was Sudanese and the other a recruit from a non-Muslim country.

Since mid-2014, Libya has been split up between two administrations - a centrist one based in Tobruk and an Islamist-leaning rival in the capital Tripoli - with each backed by competing militias.

The core members of a national unity government, formed under a UN-sponsored peace deal, arrived in Tripoli in March amid international hopes they will be able to re-establish stability and stop Islamic State's expansion in the country.

However, Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj has to win a vote of confidence by the elected parliament, based in Tobruk, before his full government line-up can officially take office.

Supporters of Tobruk's powerful army chief, Khalifa Haftar, whose own forces are approaching Sirte from the east, have been blocking a vote because the terms of the UN-brokered unity deal do not guarantee his position.

Last week the US imposed sanctions on the speaker of the Tobruk parliament, Agila Saleh, accusing him of "stalling political progress in Libya" by holding up the vote.

In April the European Union imposed sanctions on Saleh and on the heads of the internationally unrecognized, Islamist-leaning parliament and government in Tripoli.

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