Tripoli (AFP) - Libya's coastal city of Sirte, hometown of ex-dictator Moamer Kadhafi and a strategic gateway to oil export ports, is now at the centre of tensions between rival forces and regional powers.
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Saturday that Sirte and Al-Jufra to the south represent a "red line" which Turkey-backed forces should not cross as they support the UN-recognised government in the battle against strongman Khalifa Haftar, a Sisi ally.
- Buffer between GNA and Haftar -
Haftar, who controls most of eastern Libya, seized Sirte in January months after launching an assault on the capital Tripoli, base of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).
The Mediterranean city had been held by GNA forces since December 2016 when they ousted Islamic State group jihadists after six months of fighting.
Haftar's forces, backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, entered Sirte almost unopposed by buying the allegiance of a local salafist armed group.
Backed by Turkey, GNA fighters have pushed Haftar forces from most of western Libya recapturing a string of strategic cities and positions.
And they have vowed to retake Sirte, the last major settlement before the traditional boundary between western Libya and Haftar's stronghold in the east.
- Strategic importance -
Sirte lies on the Mediterranean coast roughly half-way between Tripoli and Libya's second city Benghazi in the east.
The port city is just 300 kilometres (190 miles) from the shores of Italy.
It is also a mere 150 kilometres west of Libya's main oil export terminals.
In May 2016, pro-GNA forces used Libya's third largest city Misrata as a launchpad for their operation to oust IS from Sirte, fearful the jihadists were seeking to control the so-called "oil crescent" to fund their North Africa operations.
The traditional boundary between Libya's western Tripolitania and eastern Cyrenaica regions lies just east of Sirte.
Sirte's only importance for centuries lay in its geographic position as the largely desert region separated Roman provinces from Greek ones.
- Kadhafi's birthplace -
Kadhafi, who was born in Sirte in 1942, made great efforts to turn his birthplace into the capital of his "Jamahiriya" -- a "state of the masses" run by local committees.
He created a new province around the town in addition to the three existing regions of Cyrenaica in the east, Fezzan in the south, and Tripolitania in the west.
In the 1990s, he ordered ministries to be created in Sirte, and even set up a parliament there, but eventually gave up on his plans.
Kadhafi was captured and killed in the town on October 20, 2011.
- Jihadist bastion -
After Kadhafi's ouster in the NATO-backed uprising, Sirte was largely left to its own devices until it fell to IS in June 2015.
The jihadists' black flag was raised over public buildings and their fighters roamed the streets in pickup trucks checking that people were praying at the correct times and that women were not venturing out of the home without a male minder.
In December 2016, GNA forces backed by US aircraft drove the jihadists out of the city after six months of heavy fighting.
US warplanes, drones and helicopters conducted more than 460 strikes.
- Population -
Sirte consisted of several villages spread along the coast with a mostly rural population, including cattle breeders, farmers and a few craftsmen.
Most of its people belong to four major tribes: including the Kadhadfa tribe of Kadhafi, the powerful and large Werfalla who populate the west, the Forjane and the Magariha who were closest to the Kadhafi regime.
Before the uprising, the city had a population of around 120,000, but after years of conflict only about 50,000 remain.