Libya’s unity government forces yesterday fought their way into the Islamic State militant group’s stronghold of Sirte in a land, air and sea operation to recapture the city, a spokesman said.
The United States confirmed the advance on the city, the hometown of ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi that has also been in the sights of forces of a rival authority in eastern Libya.
The loss of Sirte would amount to a blow for IS, which is also faced with battlefield reverses in Syria and Iraq.
“The armed forces entered Sirte. They are currently in the centre, where clashes continue with Daesh,” said Mohamad Ghassri, spokesman for the forces of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA).
“The operation will not last much longer. I think we’ll be able to announce the liberation of Sirte in two or three days,” he told AFP.
Brett McGurk, US President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the international coalition fighting IS, confirmed the advance.
“#GNA aligned forces now making rapid advances against #ISIL (IS) in #Libya and beginning to enter its stronghold in #Sirte,” he tweeted.
Tightening the noose on IS, air strikes targeted the area around a conference centre where IS had set up a command post, while the GNA’s navy said it was in control of the waters off the eastern city.
Aziz Issa, a hospital spokesman in Misrata, east of Tripoli, said a total of 115 fighters had been killed and 300 wounded in the anti-IS assault since mid-May.
Stepping up the operation, the GNA’s navy has taken control of the coast of Sirte as part of the offensive, said Rida Issa, its commander for central Libya.
“Our forces control the entire coast of Sirte. They (IS) will not be able to flee by sea,” he told AFP.
Naval forces had supported the offensive, he said, including by “carrying out operations to open the way for ground forces to advance along the coast”.
On Wednesday, the unity government said its forces had captured two military barracks from the jihadists near Sirte, which IS has held since 2014.
Analysts have advised caution over the decline of the Islamic State group.
“Soon IS will be driven out of Sirte. However, that definitely would not be the end of the group in Libya,” said Mohamed Eljareh of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“If ISIS is defeated in Sirte, we expect an increase in attacks against oil installations to the south and also in the cities of Misrata and Tripoli.”
There has been no independent confirmation of the announced GNA advances over the past three weeks because of the absence of journalists on the ground.
Foreign intelligence services estimate IS has 5,000 fighters in Libya but its strength inside Sirte and the number of civilians living in the city are unavailable.
GNA forces are mostly made up of militias from western cities which have sided with the unity government of prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj and the guards of oil installations which the IS has repeatedly tried to seize.
Mattia Toaldo, another Libya expert, said forces of the rival authorities led by controversial General Khalifa Haftar were still “very far from Sirte”.
“At the moment, his fortunes are down”, after two armed groups - the special anti-terrorist force and a military intelligence brigade - switched their allegiance to the GNA last week.
Eljareh said the GNA still faced serious challenges even if it captured Sirte.
“What will happen to all the forces mobilised against IS,” he asked. “And Haftar’s forces? There is a risk that they turn against each other.”
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