The so-called Islamic State (IS) militant group has set up training camps in Libya, according to a senior American army commander.
Gen. David Rodriguez, who heads US Africa Command, said that "around a couple hundred" IS fighters were estimated to be at training sites in the east of the country.
IS controls large parts of Iraq and Syria, but Rodriguez said it was yet to establish a large presence in Libya. "It's mainly about people coming for training and logistics support right now… As far as a huge command-and-control network, I've not seen that yet," he told reporters during a Wednesday press briefing.
The presence of Islamist militant groups in Libya has been an increasing concern for the US and its allies. The leadership of al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al Sharia — thought to be responsible for the 2011 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans — pledged allegiance to IS in October.
However, Rodriguez said there were not currently plans to take action against IS's presence in the country. "We'll have to just continue to monitor and watch that carefully in the future to see what happens or whether it grows on unabated."
He said that there was no solid evidence of IS spreading into western Libya around the capital Tripoli. "The intelligence community has mixed reports on that right now. But we're continuing to watch that. But most of it is over in the east right now."
Since longtime autocrat Muammar Qaddafi was ousted and killed in 2011 after four decades in power, Libya has been held together by a complex array of militias representing different religious, nationalist, and regional interests. However, disagreements over June elections turned Islamist and nationalist factions against each other, triggering an ongoing crisis that has killed hundreds, displaced tens of thousands, and left the country in turmoil.
The elections led to the formation of a new parliament — the Council of Deputies, also referred to as the House of Representatives — that was intended to replace the interim General National Congress (GNC) elected in 2012. However, the Islamist factions dominating the GNC, including the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, did not fare well in recent voting and refused to accept the Council of Deputies' authority.
A fight for control of the international airport in Tripoli subsequently erupted between the Islamist Libya Dawn and nationalist Zintan militia coalitions in August.
Meanwhile, a mixed group of militia, army units, and air force remnants headed by Khalifa Hiftar — a former general who commands the loyalty of most nationalist groups — continues to battle Islamist and extremist fighters in Benghazi, including Ansar al Sharia.
American Secretary of State John Kerry said on Wednesday that the US-led anti-IS coalition's efforts were seriously damaging the extremist group's ability to operate, but warned that it could take years to defeat the group.
"Our commitment will be measured most likely in years, but our efforts are already having a significant impact," Kerry said while speaking in Brussels during the first high level meeting of the more than 60 countries involved in the coalition. "The roughly 1,000 coalition air missions that we have flown have reduced Daesh's [IS] leadership and inflicted damage on its logistical and operational capabilities," he said, adding that the group's advance across Iraq and Syria had now been halted and in some cases reversed.
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