Libyan forces clear last Islamic State stronghold in Sirte but yet to declare liberation

AP, Reuters

The last buildings occupied by Islamic State militants in Sirte have fallen into hands of Libyan fighters on Tuesday, officials said, as anti-IS fighters celebrated in the streets of the final IS stronghold in Libya.

Ahmed Hadiya, the head of the media center for the anti-IS operation, told The Associated Press: “This is the last major battle, but it is not the end of military operations, nor the declaration of liberation.”

Hadiya said that 12 fighters were killed on Tuesday in “intense fighting.”

The United States threw its support behind the anti-IS operation in August, helping break weeks of stalemate with dozens of airstrikes.

While the extremist group has lost its major base in Libya, IS militants might seek sanctuary elsewhere — such as Libya’s lawless southern regions.

IS and other extremist groups gained a foothold in Libya over the years of chaos that engulfed the North African country in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Militias, originally made up of NATO-backed rebels, quickly filled the security vacuum

The country has been split between rival parliaments and governments, each backed by a loose array of militias and tribes. Western nations view the newly-formed U.N.-brokered government as the best hope for uniting the country, but Libya’s parliament, which meets in the far east, has refused to accept it.

Another fight against Islamic militants is ongoing in the eastern city of Benghazi, under the command of Marshal Khalifa Hifter, who answers to the parliament.

U.N. Envoy to Libya Martin Kolber told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, “the fight against terrorism has produced results, but the gains are not irreversible.”

He also said that the fragmentation of the country’s security authorities, “allow criminal and terrorist networks to flourish. Kidnappings, extortion and theft occur daily.”

The Libyan forces were backed by U.S. airstrikes when they cleared the last Islamic State hold-out in Sirte on Tuesday after a six-month battle for the militant group’s former North African stronghold.

The forces gained full control over a final patch of ground in Sirte’s Ghiza Bahriya district after fierce clashes. Several dozen women and children who had been holed up with the militants were able to leave the ruined buildings where they had made their last stand.

As celebrations erupted among the Libyan forces, which are dominated by brigades from the city of Misrata, a spokesman said the military campaign would continue until the wider area was secured. Fighters fired in the air chanting “Free Libya” and “The blood of the martyrs was not for nothing.”

The loss of Sirte is a major blow for Islamic State, leaving the group without any territory in Libya, though it retains an active presence in parts of the North African country.

The jihadi group took over Sirte in early 2015, turning it into their most important base outside the Middle East and moving large numbers of foreign fighters into the city. It imposed its ultra-hardline rule on residents, and extended its control along about 250 km (155 miles) of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline.

Spokesman Rida Issa said although forces had “secured all the buildings and the streets” in Ghiza Bahriya, this did not mean the end of the Misrata-led operation. “We still need to secure the area around Sirte,” he said.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: “This is very good news. The defeat of Daesh (Islamic State) is a very strong act, but it can only be seen as a step … the militias that have freed Sirte deserve to be congratulated.”

Libyan and Western officials say some Islamic State fighters escaped from Sirte before the battle or in its early stages. They fear an insurgent campaign from outside the city and there have been attacks in outlying areas.

The Misrata-led forces counterattacked in May after jihadis moved along the coast toward their city. The brigades, nominally aligned with a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, advanced rapidly toward the center of Sirte before suicide bombers, snipers and mines largely halted their progress.

More than 700 of their fighters have been killed and more than 3,200 wounded in the gruelling campaign. On Tuesday, a further three men were killed and about 50 wounded, said Mohamed Lajnef, an official at Sirte’s field hospital.

He said 21 women and 31 children had been released in Ghiza Bahriya. Dozens of other women and children, some of them migrants from sub-Saharan Africa held captive by Islamic State, had escaped or had been released from militant-held ground in recent days.

Since Aug. 1, the United States has carried out at least 495 airstrikes against Islamic State in Sirte.

Five years after the revolution that toppled Gadhafi Libya remains in turmoil. The U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) that arrived in Tripoli in March and supported the campaign in Sirte has made little progress in ending the chaos.

Sirte lies in a strategic position about half way along Libya’s coastline, near some of the country’s major oil fields and terminals. Close to Gaddafi’s birthplace, it is the city where he was shot and killed after ruling Libya for 42 years.

Almost all of Sirte’s estimated population of 80,000 fled the city since Islamic State took over.