Libyan fighters declare victory over ISIS in Sirte

Libyan fighters celebrating after taking ISIS' coastal stronghold.
Libyan fighters celebrating after taking ISIS' coastal stronghold.PHOTO: REUTERS

Defeat in stronghold is latest blow to militants' ambitions, but Libya remains highly unstable

LONDON • Libyan fighters have declared victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in its coastal stronghold of Sirte, ending the extremist group's ambitions for a caliphate on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

"The battle is finally over," said Mr Reda Eissa, a spokesman for the coalition of militias from nearby Misrata that led the assault. "Our fighters are ecstatic. We still have to comb through the city and make sure we got them all, but we are so, so happy."

The Libyan fighters' apparent success was another defeat for ISIS as its plans for a militant empire buckle on multiple fronts across the Middle East.

The country, however, remained very unstable amid battles between rival militias, and the remaining militants could still undermine a fragile United States-backed unity government, analysts said.

In Sirte, the Misratan militias finally ousted the remaining ISIS fighters from a cluster of houses after a gruelling six-month assault that pitted suicide bombers and snipers against Libyan forces backed by US warplanes.

After moving into Sirte in 2014, ISIS seized a 240km stretch of coastline and instituted a brutal reign that included public killings and the imprisonment of migrants as sex slaves.

The city became a transit hub for fighters travelling to Tunisia, as well as a supply stop and medical treatment centre for militants fighting in eastern Libya.

The Misratan brigades began their drive towards ISIS positions in Sirte in May.

US warplanes joined the effort in August, carrying out at least 490 sorties over the city while house-to-house fighting raged in the streets below.

Even as the Misratan brigades celebrated on Tuesday, analysts warned that the terrorist group could still regroup in other parts of Libya by exploiting the economic ruin and political vacuum that have dogged the country since the ouster of strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

"I'm concerned about the pockets of marginalisation and, in some areas, pre-existing jihadist presence that they could use to reconfigure," said Dr Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, citing the presence of ISIS forces in the capital Tripoli, Benghazi and the desert town of Sabha.

ISIS fighters could carry out bombings in an attempt to destabilise the fragile UN-backed government in Tripoli, Dr Wehrey said.

But it was unlikely that the terror organisation would be able to capture such a significant town again, he added.

During the battle for Sirte, both sides faced accusations of human rights abuses.

Libya descended into turmoil following the death of Gaddafi in the aftermath of the country's Arab Spring uprising. The oil-producing nation fractured into fiefdoms controlled by competing groups of former rebels.

Rival governments were established in Tripoli and in the east, with each claiming authority.

In the vacuum, ISIS and other extremist groups emerged in the country.

"The important thing to underscore is that jihadism and the radical threat in Libya is still very much present, especially given the institutional breakdown of the state, the alienation of vast swathes of youths, marginalised towns and tribes," Dr Wehrey said.

The fall of Sirte coincides with a concerted drive against ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul and a rapidly shifting fight in Syria.

NEW YORK TIMES, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2016, with the headline 'Libyan fighters declare victory over ISIS in Sirte'. Print Edition | Subscribe