Libyan forces tighten noose on ISIS in Sirte

Sirte – Pro-government forces in Libya on Monday cornered the Islamic State (ISIS) group in one neighbourhood of Sirte, after two days of deadly fighting for the jihadists’ last stronghold in the country.

The forces loyal to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord launched an offensive more than three months ago to drive ISIS from the coastal city, and they have been backed by US air raids for almost a month.

ISIS overran the Mediterranean hometown of Libya’s slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi in mid-2015, sparking fears the jihadists would use it as a springboard for attacks on Europe.

The pro-GNA forces announced late Monday they had “totally liberated” one of the two districts where ISIS fighters were holed up after an evening assault on their positions.

“Our forces have totally liberated district Number One” in northern Sirte, the campaign’s media centre said.

Latest breakthrough 

Reda Issa, a spokesperson for the loyalist forces, told AFP: “The price was costly but they liberated it.”

Jihadists were still holed up in half of district Number Three in the east of the city, which they had seized in July last year.

The anti-ISIS fighters “seized a little more than half of district Number Three and 70% of district Number One” in the downtown seafront area, they said earlier.

The latest breakthrough came after loyalist forces launched a new assault in the evening against the jihadists’ holdouts backed by tanks and artillery, and fought with ISIS snipers, Issa said.

On Sunday, at least 38 pro-GNA fighters were killed 185 others wounded in clashes, medical officials at a field hospital and the nearby Misrata hospital said.

Ten others died in fighting on Monday while 12 were wounded, they said.

IS casualty figures have been unavailable.

‘Final battle’

Loyalist forces announced on Sunday the “final battle” to retake the last two districts where IS was entrenched, with about 1 000 pro-GNA fighters taking part in the offensive.

The Misrata hospital, which was already struggling to handle casualties at the weekend, was filled on Monday with wounded pro-GNA fighters, an AFP photographer said.

“It was a bloody day,” doctor Akram Jumaa said.

“I carried out dozens of surgeries that lasted until this morning, and some others are still ongoing.”

Mohammad Quweid, a nurse, bemoaned the lack of means to treat casualties.

“There aren’t enough rooms so sometimes we have to put five or six fighters together in the same room.”

The jihadists have sent in at least 12 suicide car bombers since Sunday, pro-GNA forces said.

On Sunday loyalists had seized several ISIS positions in district Number Three, including the Qortoba mosque which the jihadists had renamed after slain al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

ISIS fighters seized Sirte in June 2015, hoisting their black flag above the city.

They had set fire to the mosque’s library, killed an imam and used its courtyard for “torture and executions”, the media office of the Sirte operation said.

Pro-GNA forces fought their way into Sirte a year later, on June 9, but their advance has been hampered by snipers, suicide bombings and booby traps.

More than 400 loyalist fighters have been killed and nearly 2 500 wounded in the battle for Sirte since May, medical sources say.

1 000 IS fighters

The pro-GNA forces are mostly militias from western cities backing the unity government of premier-designate Fayez al-Sarraj and the guards of oil installations that ISIS has repeatedly tried to seize.

Backed by US air strikes since August 1, they seized the jihadists’ headquarters at the Ouagadougou conference centre on August 10, pinning down ISIS fighters near the sea.

As of August 24, American warplanes had carried out 82 strikes, the US military said.

The US also leads a coalition fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, where the jihadists seized large swathes of territory in 2014.

Analysts say ousting IS from Libya would be a symbolic boost for the fragile unity government, but unrest might continue as IS could carry out more scattered attacks across the country.

Before it was seized by IS, Sirte had about 120 000 residents, but a pro-GNA military leader said this month that all had fled except for the jihadists’ families.

The Pentagon this month estimated there are fewer than 1 000 jihadist fighters in Sirte.

ISIS took advantage of the chaos in oil-rich Libya after the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed Kadhafi.

A UN-brokered deal struck in December led to Sarraj’s unity government starting to work in Tripoli, but it has since struggled to fully assert its authority over the country.