Forces aligned with Libya’s unity government have advanced into the last district of Sirte held by Islamic State fighters, who fought back with a string of suicide bombs in the heaviest day of counterattacks since the four month offensive began.
IS militants are now cornered into an area of less than two square kilometres after Operation Bunyan Marsus forces retook District 1 on Monday, according to Rida Aissa, a member of the operation’s media office.
“Our forces have totally liberated District Number 1,” he said, adding that the brigades, backed by US airstrikes, were “in the process of clearing any remnants of Daesh [Islamic State]” from the area.
The operation posted on Facebook photos of their tanks advancing towards District 3 – the last one held by the jihadis.
But the latest fighting resulted in a heavy death toll. Jihadi remnants – desperate to hold their ground – fought as if they “had nothing to lose”, launching a fierce counteroffensive of bombings.
On Sunday retreating IS fighters launched a fierce counterattack of 12 suicide car bombs. At least 38 soldiers were killed and 185 injured, according to medical sources. 10 more soldiers were killed on Monday as the advance continued.
The spokespersons said this was the highest rate of suicide bombings since they started the operation in May and Sunday one of the bloodiest days.
The advance represents a massive loss for the IS group, which once commanded a 250km stretch of land along the Mediterranean coast line of central Libya.
Bunyan Marsus forces have been helped by US and British special forces and the US air force, which launched a bombing campaign on 1 August to help their advance. To date US warplanes have carried out 92 strikes in Sirte.
On Sunday the forces seized several IS positions, including the Qurtuba mosque in District 3, which the jihadis had renamed after slain Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
During its one-year rule over Sirte, IS had set fire to the mosque’s library and killed its imam, Khalid bin Rajab Ferjani, who had refused to hand over the building to preach IS’s radical ideology.
His killing last August prompted a brief but unsuccessful uprising by locals, mostly members of the Farjan tribe. The rebellion was brutally crushed and resulted in the deaths of at least 50 people, including women and children. IS also dug up the Imam’s body and publicly burned it.
They executed a further 12 people and strung their bodies on crosses, turning the mosque courtyard into a stage for torture and executions.
Back off the battlefield, Misrata hospital was filled Monday with wounded fighters after it was forced the previous day to turn its main reception into a second emergency room to accommodate all the casualties, an AFP photographer said.
“It was a bloody day,” doctor Akram Jumaa told AFP. “I carried out dozens of surgeries that lasted until this morning, and some others are still ongoing.”
There are fears that the jihadis that have already fled their former stronghold will set up an alternate base elsewhere. On Sunday forces in the southern Libyan city of Sebha said they were tracking movements of groups affiliated with IS that had been spotted in the area. Representatives of Sebha’s Sixth Infantry Brigade and Eighth Force also warned that they would “strike anyone tampering with security in the south with an iron first”.
The spokesman of the Misratan-led Third Force, which operates in the south, confirmed that small number of jihadis had been seen, prompting the brigades to bolster security at their checkpoints.