The US launched multiplied airstrikes on Islamic State positions in Sirte on Monday, and vowed further sorties, at the request of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli that hopes to oust IS from their former stronghold.
It marked the first known American air raid against IS in the central Libyan city since the recent conflict began, and the first public coordination between the GNA and the US Armed Forces.
Prime Minister Faiez Sarraj said in a televised statement Monday that American warplanes attacked Sirte at their request.
“The Presidency Council, as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, decided to request direct US support to carry out specific airstrikes” he said. “The first strikes started today on specific positions in Sirte, inflicting heavy losses on IS.”
The “precision” strikes, which targeted an IS tank and two vehicles, would not see a full scale US or foreign intervention in Libya, PM Sarraj said. His assurances come after three French commandos were killed fighting extremists in the east of the country and after it was confirmed that US, French, British and Italian special operations forces and military experts have been operating in both east and west Libya.
“Operations at this stage are bound by a specified time frame and will not exceed Sirte and its surroundings. We reiterate our total rejection of intervention by any foreign state. Any support must follow a direct request from the GNA,” Sarraj insisted.
« [The] US military makes [it] clear US help to Libya in Sirte [is] limited to strikes and info sharing – US forces will not engage in ground operations », US Special Representative to Libya Jonathan Winer tweeted Monday afternoon.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook confirmed that President Barack Obama authorized the strikes upon the request of the GNA and following a recommendation from Defense Secretary Ash Carter and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The sorties “are consistent with our approach to combating ISIL by working with capable and motivated local forces,” Cook said using the US acronyms for IS.
Striking the IS tank and vehicles was necessary to “avert risk to the GNA and the civilian population”, Cook added. “GNA forces believed it would make a difference in their strategic advance to eliminate the tank, which was in a strategic position within Sirte. The vehicles apparently also posed a similar threat to GNA forces on the ground who are trying to recapture a particular Sirte neighborhood,” the Pentagon said in a statement. “Additional U.S. strikes will continue to target ISIL in Sirte in order to enable the GNA to make a decisive, strategic advance,” Cook added.
The Misratan-led Operation Bunyan Marsus or “Solid Architecture” was launched in early May to flush out IS militants from Sirte, the capital of their at the time 250km-long stretch of territory along the Libyan coastline. The GNA formed the Special Military Operations Room Misrata-Sirte to oversee the campaign.
Bunyan Marsus brigades – mostly form Misrata – have made at times rapid gains, recapturing the villages IS once held east of Sirte and forcing the jihadists into a five km radius within the city centre.
However they have been unable to completely liberate the area after facing a fierce counter offensive from the insurgents, who launched suicide bombings, rocket and mortar attacks and laced areas with land mines.
IS have now barricaded themselves into the Ouagadougou Conference hall, the Ibn Sina hospital and parts of Sirte University.
On 21 July Bunyan Marsus lost at least 36 men during a battle around 700 District, some of the heaviest losses suffered since the offensive began. In total over 350 of their men have been killed, and up to 2,000 injured.
Faiez Serraj confirmed in his address Monday that the GNA’s decision to request US assistance came in response to a request made by the Bunyan Marsus Operations Room, and following consultations with Defense Minister designate Al-Mahdi al-Barghathi. There had been speculations about this matter over the past week.
A letter dated 25 July and leaked online last weekend appeared to show Bunyan Marsus commanders urging the GNA to authorize US airstrikes in the area. “We appeal to you [the Presidency Council] to considering the Operations Room’s need for military aid from the US in the form of airstrikes whose targets would be determined but the Operations Room, within the framework of international cooperation on fighting terrorism”, the letter said.
At the time Bunyan Marsus Spokesman Mohamed al-Ghasri denied its authenticity as it sparked uproar among Libyans fearing another disastrous foreign intervention.
Two days later America struck Sirte. Ghasri said his forces gave target coordinates to the US.
“We welcome the US airstrikes coordinated between the Bunyan Marsus Operations Room and the GNA,” he said in a press conference Monday night.
“The first airstrikes hit at 1.40 [pm]. Bunyan Marsus forces captured one of Daesh’s top leaders on the sea frontline,“ he continued, using another acronym for IS.
“Forces succeeded in blowing up two car bombs and killing seven IS fighter who tried to sneak from district one. On Sunday forces stopped an IS attack on Hay Dollar,” he added.
US officials have estimated that there were as many as 6,000 IS fighters Libya, including some who have abandoned Syria.
In recent months, their numbers in Libya have dropped and the group is weakening, as their training camps in Sabratha were cleared and the operation to free Sirte began.
Two weeks ago, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said IS fighters in Libya were facing the “distinct possibility” of defeat in their last stronghold but warned they would likely regroup in other parts of the country, that is still in the grips of an over two year civil war.
Dunford estimated in mid-July that there were only a few hundred militants still inside Sirte.
Monday was not the first time US had struck extremist positions in Libya. In February, American F-15E fighter-bombers hit an IS safe house in Sabratha, killing more than 40 fighters and taking out IS’s top Tunisian leadership. In November, a US airstrike killed top IS commander Abu Nabil al-Anbari, believed to be the English-speaking executioner in a gruesome video where IS beheaded 21 Egyptian Christian migrants in a location believed to be near Sirte.
Last summer, the US air force also targeted a gathering of senior extremist commanders south of Ajdabiya, in eastern Libya, in an attempt to kill Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar, the infamous “one-eyed sheikh” from Algeria and former leading member of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.