Forces allied with Libya’s unity government yesterday said they had recaptured the port in the Muslim militant stronghold of Sirte from Islamic State (IS) group fighters, who are now surrounded inside the city.
The fall of Sirte, the hometown of ousted Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, would be a major setback to the extremists, who have also lost territory in Syria and Iraq where they have declared an Islamic “caliphate.”
The Libyan forces also retook a residential area in the east of Sirte, the main IS base in the North African nation, said Rida Issa, a spokesman for the forces.
The militants are now encircled in an area about 5km2 inside the city, Issa said.
The rapid pace of the anti-IS advance has surprised the Libyan authorities.
“The battle was not as difficult as we thought it would be,” a Libyan government official said onFriday.
Foreign intelligence services estimate the extremist group has 5,000 fighters in Libya, but its strength inside Sirte and the number of civilians living in the city are unclear.
Libya’s unity government forces have fought fierce street battles with the militants around a sprawling Qaddafi-era conference center, which once hosted international summits, but now houses an IS command center.
UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) forces used tanks, rocket launchers and artillery, while the miltants responded with machine guns, mortar rounds and sniper fire.
“We are fighting between houses, on the streets and we will not back down before we eliminate them,” said one GNA combatant, who declined to be named.
Warplanes have carried out air strikes near the conference center and other IS positions inside the city, according to social media accounts belonging to the anti-jihadist operation.
Eleven members of the GNA were killed and 45 wounded on Friday, mostly by sniper fire, Issa said.
Formed under a UN-backed power-sharing deal agreed by some Libyan lawmakers in December last year, the GNA has been working to assert its authority, but has yet to receive the official endorsement of the nation’s recognized parliament.
The pro-GNA forces are mostly made up of militias from western cities, notably Misrata, and the guards of oil installations that IS has repeatedly tried to seize.
The forces on Thursday said they expected to announce the liberation of Sirte in “two or three days,” after thrusting into the city center.
“We are encouraged by the progress they are making,” US special envoy Brett McGurk said. “Once you have a credible force on the ground that moves against them [IS], there is a chance that they could crack pretty quickly.”
GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj on Friday called on “all military forces to unite in the face of our common enemy … and to join the victorious forces.”
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