Reuters International

BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Libya's eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) said on Friday that they had entered the strategic oasis town of Waddan, clashing with rival factions after conducting heavy air strikes in the area overnight.

The LNA is pushing to expand its presence in central and southern Libya, where it is vying for control with forces linked to the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli and other opponents.

The clashes on Friday were between the LNA's Zawiya Battalion and the Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), a force that includes Islamists and other fighters who fled the LNA's advances since last year in the eastern city of Benghazi.

An eyewitness from Waddan, one of a cluster of towns in the Jufra region, said five fighters from the BDB side had been killed and four captured. Two wounded African mercenaries were also arrested, he said.

A medical source said the hospital in Waddan had received the body of one resident who had been killed and three who were wounded. Video footage from the area showed vehicles burning by the roadside and several dead bodies lying on the ground.

The advance came after military officials and residents said LNA fighter jets launched heavy air strikes on Thursday night in Jufra.

Over the past week Egypt has also carried out air strikes in Jufra, as well as in the far eastern city of Derna. It said the strikes targeted militants linked to an attack on Coptic Christians in southern Egypt, though analysts say the strikes appear designed to help LNA commander Khalifa Haftar, a close ally of Egypt.

Haftar has been gradually gaining ground while rejecting the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli.

The recent escalation of violence in Libya's central desert regions came after dozens of fighters loyal to the LNA were killed last month in a raid on Brak Al-Shati air base near Sabha, the region southwest of Jufra.

Jufra is just over 500 km (300 miles) southwest of Benghazi, and about the same distance southeast of Tripoli.

(Reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli; Writing by Aidan Lewis; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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