Libya Channel and Reuters
Security forces from the city of Misrata regained control of several villages along the central Libyan coastline from Islamic State fighters on Tuesday and Wednesday but lost at least 30 of their members. There has been sporadic fighting in the area south of Misrata since the start of the month, when the Sirte-based IS affiliate launched suicide attacks on checkpoints and overran the villages of Buairat al-Hassun, Zamzam, Abu Njaim and Abu Grain.
In a televised statement from the streets of Abu Grain – a small roadside village 100km south of Misrata and 130km west of Sirte – the spokesman of Misrata-Sirte Operations Room Mohamed al-Ghasri declared Wednesday evening that security forces had managed to seize the area after some heavy fighting. “We declare the completion of the first stage of al-Bunyan al-Marsus after we pushed the militants of Daesh [IS] back to the outskirts of Sirte,” Ghasri said, referring to Misrata’s Sirte campaign, whose name roughly translates as “compact building”.
According to a statement the Operations Room sent to journalists on Wednesday, 32 Misratan forces were killed and 50 wounded that day. But there are contradicting casualty reports and the death toll is likely to continue rising.
IS claimed to have killed 26 and injured more than 30 in a car bomb attack in Buairat al-Hassun, 90km west of Sirte. Another suicide bombing was foiled nearby, killing no one, according to the Operations Room. IS’s west Libya affiliate Wilayat Tarablus (“Tripolitania Province”) claimed both attacks, naming the suicide bombers as Abu Ishaq al-Sudani (“the Sudanese”) and Abu Abed al-Ghafar al-Muhajir (“the migrant”).
According to Misratan sources there was yet another suicide bombing on Thursday but no casualties.
The last few days of fighting have taken a heavy toll on Misrata. On Tuesday, Ibrahim Abdelaal, the commander of the local military engineering unit that was combing retaken areas for explosives, died in a landmine explosion. Hundreds of people have been gathering in central Misrata for the funeral prayers this week.
The Operations Room’s advance came after its forces retook Abu Grain checkpoint, as well as the other villages, on Monday and Tuesday. Abu Grain is of particular strategic importance because it is the intersection between the coastal road and the southern road into the Jufra region and the oil-rich western Sirte basin.
“Backed by heavy artillery on the ground, [the] Libyan Air force carried out twelve strikes targeting gathering and movements of ISIS [IS] extremists….This was followed by ground advances of our fighters….Our forces continued to carefully advance toward Abugrein [Abu Grain], where they faced desperate ISIS resistance which mainly relied on planted landmines [along] the coastal road and Mahmiya area….Our forces successfully entered Abugrein, Wishka, Zamzam and from there on to the 50 checkpoint”, the Operations Room’s media office posted on its Facebook page on Tuesday.
“Today our forces…continued to advance from a number of front lines. They further strengthened their locations in the town of Iberat Lihsoun [Buairat al-Hassun]. From there they moved along the road that takes to the south. Then they met and joined the battalion that came from Aljoufra [Jufra], the media office’s Wednesday update read.
In Wishka, on the southern road, the Misratan forces met resistance by IS militants but were able to repel them, according to the Operations Room. The five dead militants left behind were four non-Arab African nationals and one Arab, it claimed. There were also reports of an Egyptian credit card found on a dead IS fighter in Abu Grain.
The Presidency Council of Libya’s Government of National Accord in Tripoli congratulated the Misrata-Sirte Operations Room for its military successes and offered its condolences to the victims in a statement issued Wednesday. “We pledge to provide the brave soldiers with full material and moral support”, it said.
The GNA Presidency Council set up the Operations Room on May 5 as an means to unify military efforts to dislodge the terrorist organization from Sirte. But while decision-makers in Misrata agreed to submit to the new authority – nominally at least – the army command in the east insisted it would liberate Sirte single-handedly.
Army chief Khalifa Haftar was unequivocal in his rejection of the GNA and its attempts to take control of the military situation in a rare interview he gave to Libya Channel and Libya Al Hadath on Tuesday.
The General described the formation of the Misrata-Sirte Operations Room as “meaningless bidding” and said that the GNA’s decisions were “merely ink on paper”. Haftar also ranted against “the opponent”, reiterating accusation that Misratans provided Benghazi extremists with weapons and fighters to use against the army.
The GNA Presidency Council arrived in Tripoli at the end of March and is still trying to establish its authority. The war on Sirte forced it to accelerate its efforts, undermined by the fact that it is still awaiting endorsement from the House of Representatives.
IS declared its presence in Sirte early last year and later seized villages east of the central Libyan city, enabling raids and the setting up of ad-hoc checkpoints across central Libya, from the oil crescent to the east to the Garyat area to the west. However, the terrorist group has struggled to hold on to territory elsewhere and is seemingly pulling out fighters from eastern Libya following defeat in Derna and army advances in Benghazi since April.
Strengthened by these advances, the army leadership on April 27 announced the start of the Sirte offensive, dubbed Operation Gardabia 2, in references to a 1915 battle in Sirte that saw Libyans successfully unite against the Italian occupying forces.
In parallel, Misrata mobilized troops to march toward Sirte from the west. Misratan forces have been on the frontline of IS’s expansion for the past year but had not engaged in any direct fighting in months.
The simultaneous mobilization of the two rival camps has stirred tensions, in particular after army troops were ambushed by a Benghazi extremist group backed by Misrata on May 3 in the area of Zilla, south of Sirte.
Taking advantage of the leadership chaos, the IS Group launched a new wave of attacks, triggering this week’s confrontations.