Libya forces face ISIS fightback in Sirte

Sunday 12/06/2016
Casualty figures are rising

TRIPOLI - Fighters of the Islamic State group intensified their counter-attacks Wednesday to try to regain ground lost to forces allied to Libya's unity government in the jihadists' coastal stronghold of Sirte.

Government of National Accord (GNA) forces backed by air strikes entered the Mediterranean city last week, aiming to drive the extremist group out of its bastion on Europe's doorstep.

But the advance has been stalled since Sunday on the outskirts of Sirte's residential areas where the jihadists are holed up.

The focus of ISIS counter-attacks has been aimed at retaking Sirte's port and western sectors of the city, the hometown of ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi, military sources said.

"Our forces have not lost an inch and have not pulled back by a single step," the pro-GNA's military command said on its Facebook page.

"Our forces have confronted Daesh elements trying to reach the port, causing them heavy losses in manpower and equipment," it said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

The pro-GNA forces also said the jihadists had carried out a suicide bombing in southern Sirte, leaving two wounded.

ISIS said on Twitter that it had repelled an attempted GNA incursion in the same sector, killing at least seven pro-government fighters and seizing four armoured vehicles.

Jihadist groups took root in Libya in late 2014, taking advantage of the chaos and power struggles that followed the fall of Gaddafi's regime in 2011.

Established in Tripoli more than two months ago, the UN-backed unity government has been struggling to exert its control over the North African country, which is awash with weapons.

On Tuesday the UN Security Council unanimously authorised a European Union naval mission to enforce an arms embargo on Libya and expand Operation Sophia which has been combating migrant-smuggling.

Loyalist forces have battled since mid-May to oust ISIS from Sirte, 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of the capital Tripoli, and the mix of militias and army units have seized control of its port and airport.

But their advance slowed at the end of last week as they reached central and northern parts of the city where ISIS fighters are holed up in residential areas, having laid booby-trapped bombs and posted snipers on rooftops.

The operation to retake Sirte has so far left 145 pro-GNA fighters dead and 500 injured, according to medical officials.

The pro-GNA forces said that five of their fighters were killed and 37 wounded on Tuesday as ISIS jihadists hit positions west of the city with tank, mortar and sniper fire.

Pro-government forces said they had also opened a new front around the east of the city, and hit targets in the vicinity of the city's vast former conference centre, now used by ISIS as a battlefield headquarters.

The operation against ISIS in Sirte enjoys wide support in western Libya, where many welcomed the GNA's installation in the capital on March 30.

Unity government head Fayez al-Sarraj said Tuesday that the GNA forces' advances in Sirte should be a model for "a national initiative to fight terrorism".

His task is complicated by the presence of a parallel government operating out of eastern Libya, backed by local militias and units of the national army loyal to a controversial general, Khalifa Haftar.

Haftar, who is also a fierce opponent of Islamists, refuses to recognise the GNA and considers its forces "militias outside the law".