ISIS seizes control of airport in Libya's Sirte: Tripoli govt

Libya Dawn fighters fire an artillery cannon at IS militants near Sirte on March 19, 2015. ISIS has seized control of the airport in the city of Sirte after forces of a Tripoli-based Libyan government withdrew, a spokesman said on Friday. -- PHOTO: R
Libya Dawn fighters fire an artillery cannon at IS militants near Sirte on March 19, 2015. ISIS has seized control of the airport in the city of Sirte after forces of a Tripoli-based Libyan government withdrew, a spokesman said on Friday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

TRIPOLI (AFP) - The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group has seized control of the airport in the city of Sirte after forces of a Tripoli-based Libyan government withdrew, a spokesman said on Friday.

Mohamed al-Shami, whose government is not recognised by the international community, said its forces pulled out late Thursday from the airport which had "fallen into the hands of the ISIS organisation".

He said the forces had pulled out of the airport, which is also a military base called Gardabiya, to redeploy "as part of an operation to secure" two areas east and west of Sirte.

It was the first time that ISIS in Libya has recorded such a military gain.

"After they left, Islamic State group fighters entered the base which had been completely emptied of equipment, except for one military plane which is out of use," said Shami.

Gardabiya is located 20km south of Sirte, hometown of late dictator Moamer Kadhafi who was ousted and killed in Libya's 2011 uprising.

ISIS itself said it took full control of the airport following clashes with forces loyal to the Tripoli government, in a message posted on Twitter.

Sirte has been the scene of several months of sporadic fighting between ISIS and the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) militia alliance tasked by the Tripoli government to secure the city.

Shami said the pro-Tripoli forces would launch a counteroffensive to retake the airport once reinforcements arrived.

Sirte, 450km east of Tripoli, has been a bastion of Islamist extremism, with rival groups positioned in the Mediterranean city.

Since Kadhafi was toppled, chaos has gripped Libya as battle-hardened former rebel groups armed with heavy weapons carve out their own fiefdoms.

Fajr Libya seized control of Tripoli last year and set up a government and parliament opposed to the administration recognised by the international community that has taken refuge in the country's far east near the border with Egypt.

ISIS militants has exploited the chaos to gain ground, especially around Sirte, where it first emerged in February.