Libya Forces Seize Last Islamic State Holdout, Militants Regroup

  • Jihadists fled further south to attack cities, oil facilities
  • Coalition fighters seek to form new force to fight them

Forces under Libya’s unity government declared an end to all combat operations inside the city of Sirte after routing Islamic State jihadists from their last major foothold in the country.

“Our forces are in full control of Sirte,” Ahmed Hadia, a spokesman for the Misratan fighters affiliated with the government, said by telephone. Soldiers were still looking for fugitives, recovering bodies and dismantling mines laid during the seven months of fighting, the armed coalition said in an e-mailed statement.

Libyan officials have warned that some Islamic State fighters forced from Sirte have regrouped further south to stage retaliatory attacks on major cities and oil installations. The coalition fighters’ statement demanded that the unity government form, train and arm a special force to track down militants who fled to the south, “as they pose a threat to national security.”

Seven Months

The battle to take back Sirte, on the edge of Libya’s main oil region 450 kilometers (280 miles) east of Tripoli, began in mid-May. Libyan forces at first moved swiftly through the city, removing black banners and toppling a platform used for crucifixions, each success greeted by jubilant crowds. They took control of strategic sites, including the Ouagadougou convention center the jihadist group used as its base. But stiff resistance slowed the advance. The final battles took place in al-Jeeza al-Bahria, an area of less than one-square-kilometer on the coast.

At least 670 pro-government fighters have been killed, according to officials, and more than 3,000 wounded, many of them civilians from the western city of Misrata who took up arms to help defeat the militants in the absence of a functioning national army. As losses mounted, Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj requested U.S. airstrikes, which began on Aug. 1 and now tally 470.

Coalition fighters in Sirte cheered and chanted “the blood of the martyrs will not be shed in vain,” in a video widely circulated on social media on Tuesday night.

The city will still have to be cleared of booby traps, and earlier this year, UN envoy to Libya Martin Kobler cautioned that gains in Sirte aren’t irreversible.

Rare Victory

While the Islamic State threat hasn’t been eradicated in the south, the victory in Sirte is a rare piece of good news for Sarraj, who’s been struggling to extend the rule of his United Nations-backed governing council beyond Tripoli and raise oil production to rescue a revenue-starved economy. Violence has surged since the removal of autocrat Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, and much of the country’s east is now ruled by a separate administration dominated by an Egypt-backed former general, Khalifa Hafter.

Islamic State exploited a power vacuum as Libya increasingly split between the two rival administrations from 2014. By some estimates, the group had 6,000 militants in Libya at its 2015 peak, most of them foreign fighters. It controlled about 250 kilometers (about 155 miles) of Mediterranean coastline, making Libya the group’s most important stronghold outside Iraq and Syria.

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