Forces loyal to Libya’s Unity government said they have consolidated a siege around Islamic State fighters in Sirte, in preparation for the “final battle” to take the jihadi stronghold.
Pushed back into a 15 to 20 square km area in central Sirte, the Islamic State Group is meanwhile scaling up attacks. On Thursday morning an IS suicide bomber detonated his vehicle at Abu Grain checkpoint, 140 km west of Sirte, killing five pro-unity government fighters. A day earlier, another suicide bomber injured two fighters in Area 700 in Sirte. At least three other car bomb attacks were foiled that day. On Sunday IS launched three suicide car bombings, one of which hit a field hospital killing three people, including a paramedic, and injuring seven.
But inside Sirte the anti-IS coalition is holding on to its recent territorial gains. Tuesday they seized an ammunition stockpile, before fighting off an attempt by IS to retake Sirte’s marine port.
“Our forces drove back an advance in which Daesh used mortar bombs and one tank along with snipers located on high buildings,” Operations Room Al-Bunyan Al-Marsus (“compact architecture”) declared Wednesday.
“Our forces continued targeting IS positions in the vicinity of Ouagadougou conference centre”, the statement added, referencing three-hectare sprawling halls built by Muammar Gaddafi to host African Union meetings.
“The Libyan air force carried out a number of sorties, while engineers continued sweeping the liberated areas of landmines and explosives,” it said.
The coalition of western Libyan forces has made unprecedented ground since they came under the wing of the UN-backed Government of National Accord early last Month. They have successfully pushed the militants back from the area of Abu Grain to the heart of Sirte.
Over the weekend Al-Bunyan al-Marsus forces seized the city’s main port, took control of coastline and eastern residential districts, pushing the militants into a tight corner. In the weeks before the had taken Gardabiya air base and Sirte’s main power plant.
East of Sirte, the Petroleum Facilities Guards that are tasked with guarding the Oil Crescent region and now support the GNA, retook Ben Jawad Nofliya and Harawa from the militants two weeks ago.
But the advance has stalled in the city centre as IS have fought a vicious counter-attack with suicide bombers, booby traps and snipers, military officials told Libya Channel.
IS’ latest suicide attacks suggest that, despite the coalition’s significant advance, the terrorist group is still capable of striking back – even far behind the frontline – and delaying its defeat. For Sunday’s attack on the field hospital, IS militants had managed to penetrate some 50km behind enemy lines using an ambulance as cover, followed by the Abu Grain attack 140km west of Sirte on Thursday.
So far 145 pro-GNA fighters have died 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 IS militants hit positions west of the city with tank, mortar and sniper fire.
On Tuesday Bunyan Marsus spokesperson Brigadier General Mohamed al-Ghassri urged the international community to help with the wounded.
“Our sons are hospitalized and their condition is pitiful, but there is no support from the international community on whose behalf we fight this war,” he told Libya Channel.
Some 30,000 civilians are thought to still be in the city, Rida Aissa, a spokesperson for the GNA said. Others put the figure to as little as a tenth of that. On Wednesday brigades successfully evacuated six families from within the areas of engagement, according Al-Bunyan al-Marsus Operations Room.
Despite the successes the Sirte operation remains controversial because of a lack of endorsement from the parliament anchored in the eastern city of Tobruk.
The GNA, which was formed after a December UN-authorised peace deal, has yet to secure the official vote of endorsement from House of Representatives, that subsequent does not recognise Prime minister-designate Faiez al-Serraj.
Powerful General Khalifa Haftar, who was appointed military chief by the HoR and commands 1000s of troops in the east, has also rejected Faiez Serraj and the GNA, saying last month it would be “unthinkable” for his troops to join forces with Serraj’s army that he dubbed “militias”. Haftar formed his own operations room and threatened to move on the jihadi stronghold, ignoring warnings by Serraj who claimed unilateral action would flout military law.
“Firstly, We have no links with Mr Seraj and the Presidential Council which he leads is not recognized by the parliament,” Haftar told i-Tele news channel in an interview in Libya.
“Secondly, on this unified command center, I would like to stress that Mr Serraj relies on militia and we refuse them. An army cannot unify with militias so they must be dismantled. It’s unthinkable to work with these armed factions,” he told.
Shortly after sailing into Tripoli in April, Serraj successfully wrested power from armed coalition Libya Dawn which had controlled Tripoli and most of the west since Libya tipped back into civil war in 2014.
He has successfully united the armed factions of mostly Misrata based ex-rebels forming his army that are now fighting IS in Sirte.
The move has sparked controversy, particularly since since the UN is toying with partially lifting a five year arms embargo on Libya to allow the West to channel weapons to Serraj’s rag tag forces. There are fears that, emboldened with their new weapons, the forces under Serraj will turn on their old enemies Hiftar, intensifying the civil war.
Acknowledging the fractures on Tuesday, Serraj urged Libyans to unify and rally behind forces fighting IS in Sirte.
He called the advance by his troops a model for “a national initiative to fight terrorism” in a veiled call for his opponents to join in the operation in the central town.
“The gains on these frontlines deserve to be a model for a national project to fight terrorism….Libyans must cheer for a national project,” he said in a televised speech Tuesday.
“We bless the victories of our sons on the front lines… in the fight to liberate Sirte and cleanse it of Daesh,” he told.
Further complicating the issue was a Tuesday decision by UN Security Council to authorize an EU naval force to intercept ships suspected of arms smuggling to Libya.
The council unanimously adopted a resolution drafted by Britain and France that expands the mission of Operation Sophia, which has been combating migrant trafficking in the Mediterranean.
France’s UN Ambassador Francois Delattre said the measure is a potential “game-changer,” by cutting off the arms flow “that feeds the instability” in Libya.
But Russia warned that the measure could deepen divisions in Libya, by “helping some Libyans against others.”
Russia’s Deputy UN Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov recalled that militias loyal to Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, who has refused to back the unity government, were “effectively pushing back” against IS jihadists. “It is inadmissible to ignore this,” he told the council.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement welcoming the vote that Operation Sophia would “play an important role” in enforcing the arms embargo.
The embargo was imposed on Libya in 2011, but UN sanctions monitors have reported shipments from Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan to various factions.
British UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said “the existing arms embargo has not fully stopped the flow of weapons” and that action was needed to prevent shipments from reaching IS fighters.
Libya is awash with weapons, with some 20 million pieces of armaments of all types in a country of six million people, according to the United Nations.