Libya loyalists announce defeat of ISIS in Sirte
TRIPOLI - Forces loyal to Libya's unity government said Tuesday they were hunting down the last jihadists in the city of Sirte after the Islamic State group's ouster from its former bastion.
The loyalists said their soldiers were "chasing the last jihadists hiding in fewer than 10 houses" in the seafront district of Al-Giza al-Bahriya, the last to fall in the almost seven-month-long battle.
They also "managed to rescue a group of women and children that the defeated gangs of Daesh (ISIS) were using as human shields", the force backing the Government of National Accord (GNA) said on its Facebook page.
The pro-GNA force announced its full control of Sirte on Monday, in a major blow to the jihadists, and that dozens of ISIS fighters had surrendered.
Sirte's fall comes as ISIS also faces a string of military setbacks in Syria and Iraq.
Thirteen bodies of ISIS fighters were found Tuesday in Al-Giza al-Bahriya's streets, the pro-GNA force said.
The battle for the city, which was the last significant territory held by ISIS in Libya, cost the lives of nearly 700 loyalist troops and an unknown number of ISIS fighters.
"Today they helped many women and over 20 children, mostly infants and toddlers, who came out terrified and in dire need of medical and post-traumatic assistance", it said.
Libyan television stations have since Monday been broadcasting footage of women in black and small children, their hair covered with dust, emerging from Sirte homes, and of soldiers chanting to celebrate a hard-fought victory.
"The liberation of Sirte... is an historic day for Libya that must be celebrated across the nation," a GNA vice premier, Moussa el-Koni, wrote on Twitter.
- 'Rid of those monsters' -
He said the Mediterranean city, which ISIS had seized in June 2015, was "in the centre and capable of linking" the country which is politically divided between east and west.
But for inhabitants of Sirte, the home town of Moamer Kadhafi which was subsequently neglected in the aftermath of the 2011 revolt which ousted the longtime dictator, the outlook remains gloomy.
"I used to live in Al-Giza al-Bahriya. No doubt my home has been destroyed," said Abdessalam al-Sirtawi, who took refuge in Tripoli and has been there with his family for several months.
"I don't know if (Sirte) will find the means to recover... But the important thing is that we've got rid of those monsters," he said.
Loyalist forces launched the offensive against Sirte on May 12, quickly seizing large parts of the city and cornering the jihadists.
But ISIS put up fierce resistance with suicide car bombings, snipers and improvised explosive devices.
The offensive in Sirte, 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of Tripoli, has been backed since August by a US bombing campaign.
On the political front, the city's capture boosts the authority of the UN-backed GNA, which was set up in Tripoli in March but whose legitimacy is contested by a rival administration in eastern Libya.
The country descended into chaos following the NATO-backed ousting of Kadhafi, with rival administrations emerging and well-armed militias vying for control of its vast oil wealth.
The infighting and lawlessness allowed extremist groups such as ISIS to seize several coastal regions, giving the jihadists a toehold on Europe's doorstep.
The fall of Sirte comes as ISIS also faces a series of military defeats in Syria and Iraq.