Anti-ISIS forces retake central area in Libya's Sirte

Libyan forces allied with the UN-backed government prepare to capture university buildings during a battle with ISIS fighters in Sirte on Aug 10, 2016.
Libyan forces allied with the UN-backed government prepare to capture university buildings during a battle with ISIS fighters in Sirte on Aug 10, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

SIRTE, Libya (AFP) - Libyan pro-government forces said they seized control Tuesday (Aug 16) of a central district of Sirte as they advanced against the last pockets of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group resistance in the coastal city.

Backed by tanks and mortar fire, forces loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) retook "District Two" of central Sirte, military officials said.

The advance came a day after the loyalists cleared and demined areas of the city captured in earlier clashes.

An AFP photographer said the assault on District Two was mounted in a west-to-east direction and led by tanks opening the way for infantry.

"District Two has been liberated," Reda Issa, a spokesman for the pro-government forces, told AFP.

A commander of the pro-GNA forces said loyalists had also taken up positions south of District Two to cut off escape routes.

Loyalist forces have been pushing to clear Sirte of the militants since expelling them from key positions including their headquarters at the Ouagadougou conference centre last week.

ISIS seized control of Sirte, the home town of former dictator Moamer Kadhafi, in June of last year, taking advantage of the chaos that followed the longtime Libyan leader's ouster and killing in 2011.

Officials said on Sunday that only a single residential area, named District One, remained under full ISIS control, while fighting was ongoing in Districts Two and Three.

Loyalist forces launched operations in mid-May to retake the Mediterranean city and entered the city on June 9, facing heavy resistance as they moved towards the centre.

Washington earlier this month launched air strikes on ISIS positions in Sirte in support of the operations, after the militants' seizure of the city sparked fears that it would be used as a springboard for attacks on Europe across the Mediterranean.

More than 300 pro-government fighters have been killed and 1,800 wounded in the three-month-old battle for Sirte, according to an official casualty toll. The militants have not revealed their losses.

Loyalist forces have said they will only declare Sirte "fully liberated" once all militants have been cleared from the city.

Sirte's fall would be a huge setback to ISIS' efforts to expand its self-proclaimed "caliphate" beyond Syria and Iraq where the militants have also suffered losses.