STUTTGART, Germany -- The U.S. military has launched its first airstrike against al-Qaida in Libya as operations expand beyond targeting the Islamic State group.
"The United States will not relent in its mission to degrade, disrupt, and destroy terrorist organizations and bring stability to the region," U.S. Africa Command said in a statement on Monday.
The strikes on Saturday were launched near the remote Saharan desert town of Ubari, long a crossroads for bandits, various tribal groups, traffickers and militants.
Until now, AfriCom has focused its military efforts in the north around the coastal city of Sirte. In 2016, about 500 airstrikes were carried out during a four-month campaign to dislodge ISIS from the town. The airstrikes were coordinated with forces on the ground aligned with the Libyan government.
Some fighters managed to flee and AfriCom has continued to carry out occasional strikes in other parts of the country.
But the attack in Ubari is the first known strike that reached deep into Libya's isolated southwestern region, a place where al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has long maneuvered between borders with Niger and Algeria.
"These terrorists have used safe havens and freedom of movement in Libya to launch external terror attacks into neighboring countries," AfriCom said.
The command did not say if there were signs that al-Qaida affiliates are gaining in strength in the region, a development that could potentially prompt an escalation of U.S. operations.
The Saturday strike comes as AfriCom adds capabilities to carry out surveillance operations and possibility strikes in the broader Sahel region. In the central Niger city of Agadez, the U.S. military is developing a new drone site that will extend its reach into southern Libya.
The base is expected to be operational later this year. The Nigerien government authorized the armed drone flights in the wake of an October ambush that killed four U.S. soldiers.
Libya has been a source of instability across the Sahel since NATO's 2011 bombardment campaign that led to the overthrow of strongman Moammar Gadafi. When the regime collapsed, weapons stockpiles were left unguarded and eventually fell into the hand of militant groups. Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed Government of National Accord is struggling to establish a semblance of control.
Al-Qaida, which infiltrated Libya following the NATO campaign, has conducted terrorist attacks in the region since then, including the 2013 attack against an oil consortium in Algeria that killed three Americans. The U.S. also blames an al-Qaida affiliate for the 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi.
"Left unaddressed, al-Qaida could continue to inflict casualties on the civilian populations and security forces, and plot attacks against U.S. citizens and allied interests in the region," AfriCom said.
AfriCom said it has carried out two airstrikes in Libya this year, a slow pace compared to its four-month onslaught in Sirte in 2016. But the military says it will strike again if needed.
"In coordination with Libyan Government of National Accord, U.S. forces are conducting ongoing counterterrorism operations to degrade terrorist organizations' abilities to recruit, train, and plot terror attacks," the command said.