Saturday, June 11, 2016

Libyan GNA Allied Forces Fight Street Battles With Isis for Control of Sirte
The loss of Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown would be a big blow to the jihadis, though not necessarily a knockout for them in Libya

Friday 10 June 2016 17.38 EDT

Forces loyal to Libya’s unity regime (GNA) fought street battles in Sirte with Islamic State fighters on Friday in an offensive to capture the jihadis’ coastal bastion.

The loss of Sirte, the hometown of former Pan-Africanist leader Muammar Gaddafi, would be a major blow to Isis at a time when it is under pressure in Syria and Iraq.

Analysts have warned that the fall of Sirte would not mean the end of the jihadis in Libya, where they have fed on political and military divisions since the 2011 counter-revolution that killed Gaddafi.

Friday’s clashes took place around the Ouagadougou conference centre, a sprawling Gaddafi-era complex that once hosted Arab and African summits and which now houses an Isis command centre. From early in the day, forces aligned with the UN-backed government of national accord (GNA) pounded Isis positions around the complex with heavy artillery fire. Warplanes of the GNA also carried out air strikes around the centre and on other Isis positions inside Sirte, according to the Facebook page and Twitter account of the anti-jihadi operation.

An AFP correspondent at the scene reported heavy street-fighting about two kilometres (one mile) from the Ouagadougou centre. GNA forces used tanks, rocket launchers and artillery, the correspondent said, while the jihadis responded with machine-guns, mortar rounds and sniper fire.

“It was a war with planes and artillery, but now it is street fighting,” said one GNA combatant who declined to be named. “We are fighting between houses, on the streets, and we won’t back down before we eliminate them.”

The GNA forces apparently pushed their way from the west into the city centre and AFP correspondents saw dozens of 4x4 vehicles deployed along the way.

The GNA said in a tweet that two of its fighters had been killed and eight wounded and taken to a hospital in Misrata, further east. It also reported a failed attempt by Isis to attack them with a car bomb but gave no further details. An unspecified number of civilians who had been held by the jihadis had been freed, it said. “The countdown has begun,” the GNA said on Twitter.

GNA forces are mostly made up of militias from western cities, notably Misrata, that have sided with the GNA, and the guards of oil installations that Isis has repeatedly tried to seize.

A Libyan regime official said the operation was being carried out “under the control of the GNA operations room … but obviously in close cooperation with Misrata … The battle wasn’t as difficult as we thought it would be … [Isis’s] force has dispersed. They [Misrata forces] have taken almost all the city now.”

Isis has held Sirte since June 2015. Foreign intelligence services estimate it has 5,000 fighters in Libya but its strength inside Sirte and the number of civilians living in the city are unavailable.

“The operation will not last much longer,” said a GNA forces spokesman, Mohamad Ghassri, on Thursday after its forces made it into Sirte’s city centre. “I think we’ll be able to announce the liberation of Sirte in two or three days,” he said.

President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the international coalition battling Isis, Brett McGurk, tweeted on Thursday that GNA forces were making “rapid advances” against the jihadis.

GNA forces launched the Sirte offensive in mid-May and had seized towns, a power plant and army barracks before Thursday’s advance on the city centre. But analysts have warned that recapturing Sirte would not end Isis violence in Libya.

“What will happen to all the forces mobilised against [Isis]?” asked Mohamed Eljarh of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “And Haftar’s forces? There is a risk that they turn against each other,” he said.

General Khalifa Haftar, a controversial figure and CIA operative, is an opponent of the GNA who heads forces loyal to a rival regime backed by the internationally recognised parliament now based in the country’s far east.

On the GNA’s Facebook page on Friday, the prime minister designate, Fayez al-Sarraj, called on “all military forces to unite in the face of our common enemy … and to join the victorious forces”.

But Ahmed al-Mesmari, a spokesman for Haftar’s forces, told AFP that “the groups that are fighting [Isis] in Sirte are illegitimate militias, loyal to an illegitimate government”.

Haftar’s forces have reportedly stopped in villages south of Sirte and not advanced on the city.

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