United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon has warned that that Islamic State militants could set up new cells across Libya, despite being driven out of their stronghold in Sirte, where unity government forces have stalled in their advance.
Ban said the ousting of IS from Sirte “appears to be a distinct possibly”, but warned fighters could just be displaced, according to a confidential report to the Security council.
In the document, obtained by AFP, Ban outlined the possible threat the militants could pose under pressure, pushed out of their stronghold, and on the run in lawless areas of the country.
“The recent pressure against [IS] in Libya could lead its members, including FTFs, to relocate and regroup in smaller and geographically dispersed cells throughout Libya and in neighboring countries,” Ban said in the report.
It could led to many fleeing south as well as the west to Tunisia, he added.
IS militants, trained in Sabratha, already attempted a territory grab in Tunisia on March 7. Then dozens of fighters crossed the porous Libyan- Tunisian border and launched coordinated and targeted attacks on the police, border guards, and military in the frontier town of Ben Guerdane. In the ensuing battle which, lasted three days, 55 militants were killed and hundreds of suspected collaborators arrested.
Ban said he feared another attempted territory grab in Tunisia or in other parts of the Libya, particularly in the areas that are not controlled by either of the country’s warring governments.
The Government of National Accord, anchored in Tripoli, launched operation Bunyan Marsus to retake Sirte in May. Brigades loyal to the joint body, mostly from Misrata, made unprecendented gains pushing the militants into a tiny area within the city, and retaking most of the neighboring villages under IS control including Bin Jawad and Nofliya.
In the last few days IS has launched a fierce counterattack, targeting their forces with multiple suicide bombs and lacing the areas they fled with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and land mines, stalling Bunyan Marsus’s onward advance.
On Friday twenty soldiers were killed and more than 100 wounded as IS fighters hit back from there de facto headquarters in the sprawling Ouagadougou conference centre, built by Muammer Gaddafi to host African Union meetings.
The jihadist group said on Twitter that two IS militants, a Libyan and an Egyptian, carried out suicide car bombings targeting government forces.
It is one of the few areas that they still hold in the embattled city. According to the GNA-allied forces, fighting still rages around the hall, the university and Ibn Sina Hospital which the militants hold.
On Sunday spokespersons of Bunyan Marsus said that its men have cleared landmines and IEDS from areas once controlled by Isis, including the headquarters of the radio station used to broadcast their propaganda to the city. IS had attempted to set fire to the offices before they left, a spokesperson said. In photos posted on their Facebook page, they showed the gutted building and destruction.
The day before Bunyan Marsus said they had managed to get the city’s steam power station up and running again after it was recaptured from Isis a few weeks ago. The General Electricity Company of Libya confirmed the first unit at the Sirte Gulf Steam Power Station, located some 30km west of Sirte, was now operational. They said it would now join the national electric grid, which they hoped would help reduce number of hours of power cuts.
In a bid to dampen morale and stir rebellion within IS’s ranks in Sirte, on Monday Unity Government forces dropped leaflets behind enemy lines. The papers claimed more and more IS commanders were fleeing the battlefield and even providing the GNA forces with intelligence against their fellow fighters.