Battle for Sirte heats up as western Libyans advance

Battle for Sirte heats up as western Libyans advance
Troops and allied militias in western Libya are preparing an attack on the city of Sirte, seized by the Islamic State group last year.
3 min read
12 May, 2016

IS kill four Libyan soldiers

Western Libyan forces are moving forward with plans for a counter-attack in the city of Sirte following the Islamic State group's territorial gains in the past week, as four members of military forces loyal to Libya's new UN-backed unity government are killed and 30 wounded in clashes with IS insurgents near the western Libyan city of Misrata.

"Two suicide bombers, one in a vehicle and one on a motorbike, blew themselves up at the checkpoint where troops had gathered and clashes then broke out between our forces and the IS fighters," on Wednesday evening a spokesman for the anti-IS operations command said.

Libya's LANA news agency said the ensuing fighting went on for six hours.

Commanders of an operations room set up by unity government authorities in Misrata say they are preparing an offensive to recapture Sirte.

"We are ready and we are preparing our security arrangements to attack Sirte," said Brigadier General Mohamed al-Gasri, spokesman for a newly formed military operations room in Misrata.

The fighters based in the city of Misrata would like international logistical support to help retake what has become the Islamic State group's most important base outside Syria and Iraq, but will not wait for it before launching the operation, a statement said.

Libya's rival powers in the east and west have each vowed to free Sirte, hometown of longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi, from the grip of the Islamic State group, with each side aiming to capture the central city as a way to gain advantage over the other.

Whoever succeeds in capturing Sirte would be in a prime position to shape the unity government.

"The race for Sirte is on," the intelligence think tank Stratfor wrote in an analysis.

"The victor will secure greater bargaining power in the ongoing high-stakes negotiations" to put together the national accord government.

The UN envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, warned of civil war, saying on his Twitter account: "Libyans must not fight each other, they should jointly fight the common enemy," referring to IS.

Already the two sides have clashed, raising concerns of an all-out fight.

Libya has been torn apart among rival militias, tribes, governments and parliaments since the 2011 downfall of longtime autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-backed rebellion.

Taking advantage of Libya's chaos to create a foothold, Islamic State group militants captured Sirte, located at around the midpoint of Libya's long Mediterranean coast, more than a year ago.

Though the extremists have had little success at expanding their territory, their presence has raised alarm.

The group controls a strip of more than 250km (155 miles) of Libya's central coastline, from which it has launched attacks to the east, west and south.

Over the past week it has made gains, carrying out suicide attacks in the sparsely populated area between Sirte and Misrata, including at a major checkpoint at Abu Grain.