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Militants linked to Al-Qaida in eastern Libya declared holy war on local ISIS affiliated groups, after one of their senior leaders was killed on Wednesday by masked gunmen, which set off clashes between the rival jihadi groups that left 11 people dead on both sides, including a top militant commander.
The hours-long fighting in the eastern coastal city of Darna erupted after gunmen opened fire on Nasser Akr, an al-Qaida-inspired militant once held in the United Kingdom on terrorism charges. The 55-year-old veteran jihadi, who fought in Afghanistan, was killed along with his aide.
Akr's group — known as Shura Council of Darna's Jihadis — announced his death in a statement Wednesday, blaming it on Islamic State militants. It accused the IS fighters of "tyranny and criminality," and vowed to wage "holy war against them until none of them are left." It also called on residents to rise up against the extremist group.
The ensuing clashes killed at least nine ISIS militants and two from the Shura Council, including Salem Derbi, the commander of the so-called Abu Salem Brigade, which has history of enmity with the ISIS affiliate.
The ISIS group in Libya is a mixture of homegrown militants, former al-Qaida affiliates and foreign nationals who were trained in Syria and sent to join ISIS in Libya. The clashes in Darna mirrored regional rivalry between the two groups, which are also fighting against one another in Syria.
A member of the Abu Salem Brigade, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, told sources that among ISIS members killed in Wednesday's exchange was the group's top ideologue Hossam Abu-Rashed.
"Now we are searching for the Wali," the Brigade member added. He was referring to a Yemeni militant sent from Syria to fight for Libya's ISIS affiliate and known with his nom de guerre Abu al-Baraa el-Azdia.
The member added that many of those killed are foreign nationals.
The slain Abu Salem Brigade commander, Derbi, belonged to a generation of Islamic militants who turned Darna into a jihadist stronghold in the 1980s and 1990s during an insurgency against longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. In a 2012 interview with the AP, Derbi said that under Gadhafi, he hid in the mountains of Darna for over 10 years while a heavy crackdown on Islamic militants was underway.
Darna was also the main source of Libyan jihadis and suicide bombers who joined the insurgency in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Entire brigades of Darna natives have also been fighting in Syria's civil war.
An ISIS affiliate seized control of Darna last year after veteran militants returning from Iraq and Syria united the city's fractured extremist factions and killed off rivals, including members of Derbi's militia.
The Islamic State Of Iraq And Syria, also calling itself Islamic State, won a foothold in Libya amid the chaos that accelerated last year when militias allied with Islamist factions seized the capital, Tripoli, and the second largest city of Benghazi, forcing the elected parliament and government to relocate and reconvene in the country's far est.
ISIS fighters have also taken the central coastal city of Sirte and are marching toward the third largest city of Misrata in western Libya and toward the oil terminals in the east.
In Darna, ISIS has set up its own religious courts and police to enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.
Hamad al-Bondoqi, a Darna lawmaker in the country's elected parliament, said that al-Qaida-linked groups and the IS affiliate have clashed repeatedly in the past months in Darna, mostly over power and resources. He cited battles over imposing taxes on merchants, fighting for control of a local factory, and over who has the right to set up checkpoint at the southern entrance to the city.