Misrata Militants Are Winning the Air War in Southwest Libya
Air-base raid weakens the Libyan National Army's position
On May 18, 2017, the Third Force — a Misrata-based Libyan militia — attached the Libyan National Army’s Birak Al Shati air base 80 kilometers north of Al Sebha in southwestern Libya. The region is valuable for its oil infrastructure and age-old smuggling routes.
At least 134 people — LNA fighters and civilians alike — were killed. The Third Force troops ultimately fled, allowing the LNA to reoccupy the ruined base.
The LNA, which is vying with the Government of National Accord to become Libya’s the national government, accused the GNA of sponsoring the attack. The GNA denied playing any role.
The aftermath of the Third Force attack on Birak Al Shati. All photos via the author
The LNA’s 12th Brigade had bloodlessly seized Birak Al Shati on Dec. 7, 2016. Later in December, the 12th Brigade captured the Gwairat Al Mal checkpoint from the Third Force. On Jan. 2, 2017, jets from the Libya Dawn Air Force — aligned with the GNA — reportedly attacked LNA positions, allowing the Third Force to retake the checkpoint.
The seesaw combat continued, with the 12th Brigade capturing the checkpoint again on Jan. 3. The LNA promptly declared a no-fly zone across southwestern Libya, but its own weakened air force was never able to actually fully enforce the zone.
On April 5, 2017, the LNA air force launched air strikes on the Third Force’s Tamanhint air base. The Misrata air force retaliated by bombing Birak Al Shati.
The night of May 17, 2017, a convoy of around 60 Third Force vehicles departed from Al Jufrah while a second convoy of 30 vehicles left the city of Sirte. There were rumors that militants from the Saraya Defend Benghazi group were among the Third Force fighters.
The aftermath of the Third Force attack on Birak Al Shati
The vehicles converged on Birak Al Shati. It seems that the LNA garrison at Birak Al Shati was unusually small, as some officers and soldiers had gone home or relocated to a different LNA base. All that remained at Birak Al Shati were a few guards plus a group of 50 students from the military college, who had arrived the day before from Benina airport.
Most of the guards and students were killed and a few were taken prisoner. The assailants also burned the fuel station and destroyed airstrip infrastructure and any old, decommissioned aircraft and vehicles — including some belonging to a resident artillery unit — they found at the base.
The May 2017 attack further weakened the LNA at a time when the regime was already suffering in southwestern Libya. The LNA is increasingly dependent on air support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, mercenary pilots and technicians have arrived to bolster Misrata’s own air power.