Libyan Forces Say They’ve Retaken IS Headquarters in Sirteby
Libyan forces backed by U.S. warplanes edged closer to retaking Islamic State’s last foothold in the oil-rich North African country, and its only base outside Syria and Iraq.
Just three areas in the coastal city of Sirte were still being occupied by IS fighters on Thursday after armed units under Libya’s unity government took control of the Ouagadougou Hall, a sprawling convention center, Colonel Mohamed al-Ghasrie, spokesman for the coalition of armed units leading the offensive, said by phone.
"The hall of Ouagadougou was an impenetrable fortress and symbolic place for IS in Libya,” he said. “The enemy has retreated and left other major positions. We are now enforcing our presence in the city."
Victory would boost Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj’s efforts to stem the violence that has plagued the country in the five years since the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi and unite the country under a United Nations-backed government. It would also be a major relief for European leaders hit by IS-inspired attacks and confronted with unprecedented numbers of migrants traveling through Libya.
At least 300 Libyan fighters have died since the battle for Sirte began at the end of May, many of them civilians from the western city of Misrata who took up arms to help defeat the militants in the absence of a single security force. As losses mounted, Sarraj requested U.S. airstrikes, which began on Aug. 1.
Islamic State carved out a presence in Libya during a civil war between eastern and western factions in 2014 that led to the establishment of rival administrations. The political instability in a country awash with weapons spurred a wave of killings, kidnappings and smuggling. Amid the chaos, oil output has slumped by about 80 percent from about 1.6 million barrels a day before the revolution, leading to a sharp drop in foreign currency reserves and a growing fiscal deficit.
By some estimates, at the peak of its power in 2015 in Libya, Islamic State had at least 6,000 militants, most of them foreign fighters, and controlled about 250 kilometers (about 155 miles) of territory along the Mediterranean Sea including Sirte. which lies in the so-called oil crescent.
Islamic State fighters routed from Sirte are regrouping further south to stage attacks on major cities and target oil installations, Libyan officials have said. On Tuesday, Fathallah Ez-Zwawi, leader of the Zala and Marada patrol forces in the center of the country, said his forces thwarted an assault on al Naga field.
“IS is clinically dead in Sirte, but retaliatory terrorist attacks are highly expected,” al-Ghasrie said.
Ouagadougou Hall was used as a main venue for Arab and African summits under Qaddafi, who was born in Sirte and was killed there in 2011. After the revolution some members of local tribes and communities in the area favored by the former leader felt alienated and Islamic State preyed on those feelings to make initial gains.
Successes against the group will be fragile without national reconciliation.
“Islamic State has been exploiting divisions among brothers,” al-Ghasrie said. “Libyans mustn’t give the terrorists a chance to return, and this can be only be achieved by uniting and staying united."