Forces loyal to Libya’s unity government repelled a counterattack by the Islamic State group in Sirte, just a day after launching airstrikes on their positions in the central Libyan jihadi stronghold to prepare for a ground advance.
At least 10 jihadis were killed in the fighting, while four members of the anti-IS forces were killed in Fridays’ clashes. Some 24 others were wounded.
The air force had announced the completion of deadly sorties on their Facebook page on Thursday, after which officials from the Bunyan Marsus (compact architecture) Operations Room said they were preparing for a ground advance.
“Our air force today launched an intense series of air strikes that targeted various [IS] positions in Sirte,” Rida Aissa, a spokesman for Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) said.
“Military engineering teams are working to clear mines and bombs planted by [IS] to open the way for our ground forces to continue their advance on different parts of the city,” he told.
IS announced on social media Thursday that its fighters had detonated two bombs near troops in the east of the city, burned a tank and hit a reconnaissance aircraft.
The GNA took the leadership of Operation Bunyan Marsus in May to flush the jihadis out of Sirte, the de facto capital of IS’s 150km stretch of coastal territory in central Libya.
Bunyan Marsus forces – mostly armed groups from Misrata – have faced fierce resistance from the jihadis after sweeping control of large parts of district 700, just south of the city center, where tall buildings havebecome strategic sniper position for the militants. This week they have also taken the city’s radio station, where IS propaganda sermons were broadcast, and the electricity company’s local headquarters.
Writing on the Operation Room’s Facebook page on Thursday officials said they had pounded IS ammunition stores with artillery for days but had not been able to take back the whole district due to presence of civilians.
“Over the past two days the artillery shot at ammunition depots and [IS] bases but not Area 700, not because of its fortifications but because civilians did not respond to calls to evacuate,” the statement read.
“Bunyan Marsus advanced on three frontlines toward the residential area despite mortars landing all around them,” the statement continued.
The advance was scuppered by a car bomb as well as RPG and PKT gun attacks, it added. Jihadis had holed up with women and children, it claimed.
Their field hospitals were struggling under the strain of the rising number of wounded, and the desert winds.
On Tuesday IS killed 36 soldiers and injured over 150 others in what was dubbed the deadliest day yet for the anti-IS operation.
It raises the overall death toll to 210 soldiers killed and over 800 wounded since the start of the offensive.
Militants pinned within a 5km radius of territory have hidden inside residential areas and are fighting back with suicide bombings, sniper fire and land mines.
“The resistance was fierce and they were firing with everything they’ve got, mortars, rockets and rifles,”said Abdalla Bin Rasali, a spokesman at the forces’ media centre in Misrata. “They fear that if they lose more ground they will be defeated.”
Operation Spokesman Brigadier General Mohamed al-Ghassri said their forces occupied all of Sirte except the small area around the Ibn Sina hospital. The heavily boobytrapped neighbourhood is slowing an advance, he told.
“They are fighting fiercely, they don’t intend to get away, the leaders might have escaped,” he said. “We are taking a while to re-evaluate the situation and see what is the best way to proceed.”
On Wednesday unity government forces located and cleared a main jihadi explosives factory in areas they liberated from IS, where they confiscated artillery shells, landmines and bombs, as well explosive making materials and electronic detonators.
In photos published on the Facebook page, they showed IS training manuals, papers covered in mathematical equations and coils of wire.