Reports of western ‘boots on the ground’ in Libya as Islamic State storms Sabratha

Libya’s Channel with wires

Islamic State militants stormed the centre of Sabratha late Tuesday,  seizing the security directorate, the main hospital and beheading 11 people, residents and officials told Libya’s Channel.

As many as 17 people are believed to have been killed in the clashes when 200 IS fighters raided the centre of the coastal city, some 80km west of Tripoli.

It came just four days after US warplanes bombed an IS building to the west of the city, killing 47 militants and two Serbian hostages the group had been holding there. And amid reports  western militaries were preparing further battles against IS, including news of French special forces deployed to Libya, and US anti-IS drones operating out of Italian air bases.

On Tuesday local brigades – acting off intelligence garnered from IS soldiers injured in the American strike –  attempted to raid several IS-held buildings some 15 km south of the city sparking the retaliatory attack on the coastal town.

“Some of the people from Sabratha managed to take IS injured from the hospital and take them to the south of the city. We therefore prepared a big force and started raiding houses were we expected IS  to hide,” said one of the Sabrathan forces who was  injured in Tuesday’s attack.

“We realized that a massacre was going to happen in Sabratha after we found a lot of different weapons, like mortar rockets, PKT, and others,” the fighter added.

Between 150 to 200 Isis militants – exploiting the “security vacuum” in downtown after the brigades moved south to raid their bases – entered the city activating their “sleeper cells’, Head of Sabratha Military Council Tahir al-Gharabli said.

The jihadists – the majority of which were Tunisian – took over the security directorate building, the high ground areas, the municipal council and the main hospital.

Residents  reported that the black flag was flown over the main square, and fierce clashes ensued through the night.

Citizens were ordered out of downtown amid the fighting which only stopped when forces from nearby Zuwara to the west and Zawiya and Surman to the east came to the rescue.

“After the neighboring areas arrived, IS completely withdraw from downtown and that was before daw. The city is under control. The situation is a bit tense because reactions of Martyrs families,” Sabrathan mayor Hussain al-Dhuwadi said.

A security source from the western city of Zintan added that authorities had agreed to treat the five wounded brigade members from Sabratha, a sign that Zintan and Sabratha may be prepared to cooperate in the fight against IS, despite being on opposing sides of the civil.

The Special Deterrence Force in Tripoli, meanwhile, announced the arrest of Sabrathan IS leader in Sabratha Mohamed Saad al-Tajuri.

IS first appeared in Libya in October 2014, and has since conquered swaths of territory in the centre of the country around Sirte, once the hometown of Muammar Gaddafi.

Their main training centre is in Sabratha where militants responsible for two terror attacks in Tunisia last year which killed over 60 tourists were thought to have been trained. Noureddine Chouchane, who allegedly masterminded  the attacks, was the main target of Friday’s US airstrikes – which were not coordinated with either of Libya’s rival governments.
The West has watched with increasing alarm at the expansion of isis in Libya and have pledged military support to the country’s UN-backed unity government when it is formed.

But apparently frustrated by the delay in endorsement of the joint body, the US has taken unilateral action against IS and Al-Qaeda linked groups, such as Friday’s airstrikes.

There are fears the Americans will up their action in Libya when on Wednesday  Italian officials revealed that Italy has agreed to allow American drones to be armed and take off from an air base in Sicily to launch airstrikes  on Isis in Libya.

An Italian defense ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity as the government hasn’t announced the deal, said Rome and Washington reached agreement last month. Permission will have to be asked of the Italian government every time, and decided on a case-by-case basis, for the drones to take off from Sigonella air base to protect military personnel deemed at risk during anti-IS operations in Libya and elsewhere in northern Africa. Permission won’t be granted for offensive missions under the arrangement.

Washington is counting on Italy to play a major role in an allied coalition, expected to also include Britain and France, against IS extremists gaining ground in Libya, across the Mediterranean from Italy.

Phases of the military intervention may have already started when on Wednesday it was revealed that  French special forces and intelligence commandos are already engaged in covert operations against IS in Libya in conjunction with the US and Britain.

According to a report in Le Monde newspaper, President Francois Hollande had authorized “unofficial military action” by both an elite armed forces unit and the covert action service of the DGSE intelligence agency in the conflict-ridden North African state, which has two rival governments and largely ungoverned desert spaces.

What Le Monde called “France’s secret war in Libya” involved occasional targeted strikes against leaders of the ultra-radical Islamist group, prepared by discreet action on the ground, to try to slow its growth in Libya.

Two Libyan military officials confirmed the news to AP on Wednesday.  The French combat squad, consisting of 15 special forces, carried out four military operations against IS and other militant groups in Benghazi, the officials told.

They said that French forces work with Libyan troops to pinpoint IS militant locations, plan operations and carry them out. They had also been training Libyan forces, they added.

According to the officials, the French forces were setting up an operations room in Benina air base in Benghazi alongside British and US teams. They said that in addition to the special forces, a French intelligence unit is working with Britain and the US units to collect information on the location of IS militants and their numbers.

Similar teams are also operating out of an air base in the city of Misrata, located to the east of the IS stronghold of Sirte, the officials said. The Libyan officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The French defense ministry declined to comment, citing a policy against commenting on special forces’ activities. The Libyan officials said the presence of Western forces was not welcomed by ultraconservative Salafist factions, who are allied with Libya’s army and perceive the foreign intervention as an “occupation.”

American Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday warned that if the Libyans did not agree on a joint administration soon the country would be a “failed state”

“We have been working really hard for the last months, particularly, to bring together a government in Tripoli,” Kerry told U.S. lawmakers. “If they cannot get themselves together, yes it will be a failed state.”

 

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