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US-backed Libyan militias take over IS headquarters in Sirte

US-backed Libyan militias say they have taken over the Islamic State group’s headquarters in Sirte, the militants’ final bastion in Libya.

world Updated: Aug 11, 2016 01:14 IST
Islamic State,Libya,Sirte
US-backed Libyan militias say they have taken over the Islamic State group’s headquarters in Sirte.(Reuters File Photo)

Libyan forces battling to oust Islamic State from Sirte said on Wednesday they had captured a convention centre in the city centre, seizing a base where militants once flew their black jihadist flag.

Retaking the Ouagadougou centre would mark the biggest advance Libyan forces have made in weeks. The United States began air strikes 10 days ago on Sirte, which fighters say eased their advance to encircle the militants.

“Our forces have complete control of the whole of the Ouagadougou complex - they even advanced some distance beyond the complex,” said Rida Issa, a spokesman in the forces’ media office.

The large domed Ouagadougou complex is a landmark in Sirte, hometown of late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and was used for meetings and religious instruction by Islamic State after they took control of the city last year.

Losing Sirte city would be a major setback for Islamic State, already under pressure in Syria and Iraq. It would also be a boost for Libya’s UN-backed government, which has struggled to impose its authority and faces continuing resistance from hardline armed factions.

Forces aligned with the UN-backed government launched their campaign for Sirte in May. Their advance slowed as they approached its centre, and the forces, led by brigades from the city of Misrata, have suffered heavy casualties from Islamic State landmines and snipers.

Clashes have been sporadic, with heavier fighting interspersed with lulls that last for several days. Islamic State still controls several residential areas and the Misrata-led brigades have previously found it difficult to advance through neighbourhoods in house-to-house fighting.

Since August 1, US drones and fighter jets have carried out a total of 29 strikes, targeting several IS emplacements on Monday and a gun-mounted pick-up truck on Tuesday, according to statements by US Africa Command.

In Wednesday’s clashes, the government-backed forces said they had also advanced to a cluster of unfinished blocks just west of the centre of Sirte, known as the “bone buildings”, which had been used by Islamic State snipers.

At least 16 fighters from the government-backed forces were killed and 11 wounded, Issa said.

Earlier in the day, Libyan forces said they had lost a fighter jet over Sirte. Issa said the cause of the crash and the fate of the crew could not be confirmed. Islamic State said it shot down the jet, killing a pilot, according to a statement on a website close to the group.

Post-Gaddafi chaos

Libyan militants returning from combat in Syria’s civil war helped implant Islamic State in Libya in 2014, but the group failed to win widespread support or hold territory as most local people regard it as a malign import dependent on foreign fighters.

Islamic State took advantage of conflict between various factions of former rebels who emerged as powerbrokers after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011. The UN-backed government in Tripoli is the latest attempt to end the conflict.

In addition to US air strikes, Libyan brigades in Misrata and Sirte have been working with small teams of Western special forces who have provided intelligence and logistical support as well as strategic advice.

A few dozen men belonging to Italy’s elite special forces are in Libya to collect intelligence, provide non-combat “support” to government-backed forces and help other allies present in Libya, such as British or American special forces, a source said on Wednesday.

The Italian government delivered a brief document outlining the special forces mission in Libya to the parliament’s intelligence services oversight committee last week, said the source, who had knowledge of the document.

La Repubblica newspaper reported that Italians were teaching Libyans how to diffuse land mines in Sirte. The defence minister and prime minister’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.

Map and timeline of the Libyan government offensive against the Islamic State group and the battle for the city of Sirte. (AFP)

First Published: Aug 10, 2016 22:30 IST