BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Islamic State militants were retreating Thursday from their main bastion in Libya, as militiamen allied to a U.N.-brokered government pushed into the central city of Sirte, officials said.
Some militants reportedly shaved off their beards to escape while the pro-government fighters, mostly from the western Libyan city of Misrata, pushed into the city center in their tanks and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. At a main roundabout, the militiamen dismantled the metal frame of what some Sirte residents had dubbed the “stage of horror” — a podium used by Islamic State for public beheadings and extrajudicial killings during its reign of terror.
Videos circulated on social media show triumphant militiamen flashing victory signs and chanting “Allahu-Akbar” or “God is Great” as they drive around Sirte.
The capture of Sirte capped a month-long offensive by the Libyan militiamen to take the Islamic State stronghold — it was the only major Islamic State-held city outside Syria and Iraq, and was seen as a possible fall-back option for the capital of its self-styled caliphate. The extremists are currently struggling to fend off advances on a number of fronts, including in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and the northern Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa.
In Libya, militiamen from Misrata have been the main fighting force for the U.N.-brokered unity government that was installed in Tripoli earlier this year. For nearly four weeks, the militiamen have been advancing from the west and south against Islamic State. The extremist group dispatched suicide bombers against the militiamen, who lost dozens of fighters last month.
On Wednesday, the militias pushed deeper into Sirte, which lies in the central part of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline. On Thursday, they reached the city’s key Zafarana roundabout, where they dismantled the stage where Human Rights Watch says Islamic State killed at least 49 people.
Misrata-based media official Ahmed Hadiya said his forces found sinks full of shaved-off beards and long hair inside a Sirte school taken from Islamic State, suggesting that the militants tried to get rid of their trademark looks before fleeing.
Left behind were also militant cell phones, Islamic State paraphernalia and leaflets pledging allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, according to a Misrata fighter who shared photos he took of the items with The Associated Press. One of the photographs showed a graveyard that belonged to Islamic State in Sirte, he said, declining to give his name because he wasn’t authorized to talk to reporters.
A militia commander, Ali bin Gharbiya, claimed in an audio message posted on Facebook that the victory against Islamic State militants in Sirte was quick. “Except for a little bit of anti-aircraft fire, they immediately withdrew,” he says.
The pro-government forces’ next goal was the Ouagadougou gigantic convention center, another city landmark, Hadiya said.
The center was the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s onetime favorite conference hall, where he hosted lavish African and Arab summits. Islamic State had turned it into its headquarters, raised its black banner over the center and held graduation ceremonies there for those who completed its organized religious sessions.
“The Daesh are cornered inside and around the center,” Hadiya said, using the Arabic language acronym for the Islamic State group. “Our forces are preparing … to seize the center.”
Islamic State militants unexpectedly showed little resistance once the militiamen pushed into their bastion. This could signal either a tactical retreat or a reflection of the small size of Islamic State fighters remaining inside the city — after Western officials have earlier estimated Islamic State strength in Sirte to be over 5,000 men.
Ismail Bashir, a lawmaker from the town of Jufra, a nearly three-hour-drive south of Sirte, said the Sirte “offensive showed (Islamic State’s) real size and capabilities; their collapse was really dramatic.”
Islamic State and other extremists have exploited the chaos that followed the 2011 overthrow of Gadhafi in a NATO-backed uprising, establishing strongholds just across the Mediterranean Sea from Europe. Libya meanwhile sunk deeper into turmoil, with the country’s feuding factions splitting it into two parliaments and rival governments.
This year, Western nations have thrown their support behind the U.N.-backed government in hopes of ending the rivalry between authorities based in the capital, Tripoli, and in the country’s far east.
According to Ziad Hadia, who represents Sirte in the parliament based in eastern Libya, more than 2,000 Islamic State fighters are thought to remain in the city. Foreign fighters, mostly from Tunisia and sub-Saharan Africa, account for more than 85 percent of the fighters, he added.
The Western-backed unity government, in the absence of an organized and unified army, has depended on the Misrata militias, among the country’s most powerful.
Meanwhile, another force that answers to army leader Khalifa Hifter, based in the country’s east, has announced that it has deployed fighters south of Sirte. A third armed group, which has declared its loyalty to the U.N.-backed government, on Thursday took the town of Hawara, east of Sirte, from Islamic State. The group has also taken other small towns located between Sirte and an oil-rich area in eastern Libya in recent weeks.
Hifter has also been battling Islamic militias in the eastern city of Benghazi and the former Islamic State stronghold of Darna, where his forces have carried out airstrikes. On Thursday, four civilians were killed, including three children, when an airstrike hit a storehouse in a crowded area of Darna, according to the city’s lawmaker Hamid Al-Bandag.
Hadiya said the assault on Sirte has cost the Misrata militiamen the lives of 130 fighters and that about 400 have been wounded. Among the fatalities were two former government ministers who took up arms to battle Islamic State, Mohammed Sawalem and Abdel-Rahman al-Kissa.
Before he was killed in Sirte, al-Kissa said on his Facebook page that fighting Islamic State was a “gift from God … this is a sacred war.”