CAIRO (AP) — U.S.-backed forces in Libya have liberated “70 percent” of the city of Sirte, the Islamic State group’s last bastion in the North African country, after seizing several strategic locations over the past 24 hours under the cover of U.S. airstrikes, a Libyan official said Thursday.
Mokhtar Khalifa, the Sirte mayor, told The Associated Press that the city’s southern and western sections are under control of the Libyan fighters loyal to the U.N.-brokered government in Tripoli, the country’s capital.
“Sirte is 70 percent free, it will soon be completely free,” Khalifa said.
“We are in the middle of the decisive phase in the battle against Daesh,” said Reda Eissa, a media official, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
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The general estimate of the numbers of IS militants remaining in Sirte is in the hundreds, he added. The pro-government forces have had 16 dead since the last round of fighting started on Wednesday morning and more than 70 wounded, mostly by sniper fire and a suicide car bombing. In that attack, the bomber rammed his car into the Libyan fighters’ lines, he said.
Libyan pro-government forces have lost hundreds of fighters since the Sirte offensive started. Eissa estimated number of deaths among IS at about 40.
Eissa said IS militants have been cornered inside residential areas in the northern section of the city as well as palace complexes adjacent to the port of Sirte. “The speed of the Libyan forces’ advancement from now one will be accelerating,” he said.
IS seized Sirte, the hometown of Libya’s former dictator Moammar Gadhafi, in 2015 and Libyan pro-government forces launched an operation to retake it in June.
After an initial push into Sirte, the advance stalled. The city’s coastline and a former Gadhafi convention center proved the biggest challenge because of IS snipers positioned on rooftops, roadside bombs planted along the streets and IS suicide bombers.
Upon the Tripoli government’s request, U.S. warplanes carried out a series of airstrikes targeting IS positions in Sirte starting Aug. 1, breaking the stalemate. President Barack Obama said earlier that the strikes, which he authorized, would continue as long as necessary to make sure the militant group doesn’t get “a stronghold in Libya.”
“The international support has made a big difference” in the battle against IS in Sirte, Khalifa said.
On Wednesday, the Libyan fighters, mainly from the western city of Misrata, captured the sprawling convention center known as Ouagadougou, which IS had turned into its headquarters. The forces had earlier taken the main hospital named Ibn Sina, and the city’s university. Eissa said they found explosives’ factories in areas they seized on Wednesday.
Photographs posted on social media of the operation in Sirte show Libyan fighters in mismatched uniforms flashing the “V” sign for victory from atop of a tank.
The fighters took down the black IS banners from atop the convention center, replacing it with the Libyan tricolor flag, Eissa said.
Libya descended into chaos following Gadhafi’s ouster in 2011. The country has been split between rival parliaments and governments, based in Tripoli and the country’s far east, each backed by an array of militias and tribes.
In December last year, the United Nations struck a deal with Libya’s rival factions to create the unity government led by Fayez Serraj. He still needs a crucial vote of confidence from the internationally-recognized parliament, based in eastern Libya.
The security and power vacuum encouraged both human trafficking and the Islamic extremists to establish a permanent presence in Libya especially along its Mediterranean coastline.