Forces aligned with Libya’s unity government have taken one of the last areas of Sirte, forcing the Islamic State group into just two districts, officials have said, vowing that the liberation of the city is only days away.
At least eight soldiers were killed and more than 80 wounded on Tuesday when Operation Bunyan Marsus recaptured the whole of District 2, a central coastal area in the former IS stronghold. Forces then advanced east into District 1, meaning IS only hold parts of the area and District 3 under its control.
The operation’s main spokesman Brigadier-General Mohamed al-Ghasri told Libya Channel that Sirte would be liberated “in just a few days”.
“Our forces now control District 2 after taking out snipers positions with tanks,” Bunyan Marsus’s media office wrote on their Facebook page. “Our troops advanced into Districts 2 and 1, where approximately 20 airstrikes targeted car bombs and vehicles transporting immunity,“ the statement added.
The jihadists still hold two strategic buildings: the city’s polyclinic and the sports complex. They laced the streets they fled with land mines and booby-traps slowing Bunyan Marsus’s advance.
Dozens of bodies of IS militants were abandoned on the battlefield after the retreat, the operation said in a second Facebook message. IS fighters are clearly “choosing suicide” as a last ditch attempt to hold their ground after “losing all hope”, the communiqué read.
The Misrata-led forces had faced four vehicle-borne bombs, two of which they had destroyed on the ground before they could reach their targets, media office member Rida Aissa said.
“One unfortunately exploded near our forces but there are no casualty figures, and the fourth one was bombed by a warplane. We do not know whether it was US air strike or our air defence,” he said. They were also confronted with three suicide bombers wearing explosives belts.
The rest of the slain and wounded soldiers were hit by snipers and land mines, Akram Gliwan, a surgeon at Misrata’s central hospital said.
Tuesday’s gains followed several advances made on Sunday when Bunyan Marsus forces recaptured most of the so-called Indian buildings and advanced into parts of District 2, assisted by the artillery and naval forces.
The day before they had taken back the city’s main radio building, which IS had commandeered in February to broadcast propaganda speeches by IS emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Operation Bunyan Marsus, announced by the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord in May, has been significantly helped by a US bombing campaign in Sirte that started on 1 August at the request of the GNA. Since then American warplanes and drones, leaving from the Mediterranean based WASP aircraft carrier, have carried out 48 airstrikes on IS positions, taking out tanks, vehicles and weapons stockpiles.
Mohamed al-Ghasri has told media that the GNA-aligned forces would nominate a military governor to temporarily administer Sirte once the IS group is defeated.