US launches air strikes on ISIS in Libya

A fighter of Libyan forces allied with the UN-backed government runs for cover during a battle with Islamic State fighters in Sirte, Libya, on July 31.
A fighter of Libyan forces allied with the UN-backed government runs for cover during a battle with Islamic State fighters in Sirte, Libya, on July 31. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • For the first time, US warplanes yesterday carried out air strikes on positions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in the Libyan city of Sirte.

"The first American air strikes on precise positions of the Daesh (ISIS) organisation were carried out today, causing heavy losses... in Sirte," Libya's Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, who heads the country's unity government, said in a televised speech.

In Washington, the Pentagon said the raids were launched in response to a request from the Libyan government.

"At the request of the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), the United States military conducted precision air strikes against ISIL targets in Sirte, Libya, to support GNA-affiliated forces seeking to defeat ISIL in its primary stronghold in Libya," Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said, using another name for ISIS.

He said the US strikes were authorised by US President Barack Obama following recommendations from top Pentagon officials.

"These actions and those we have taken previously will help deny ISIL a safe haven in Libya from which it could attack the United States and our allies," Mr Cook added.

The GNA was the result of a United Nations-brokered power-sharing agreement struck in December, but it has yet to be endorsed by Libya's elected Parliament based in the country's far east.

Based in Tripoli, the GNA launched an operation in May to retake the ISIS bastion of Sirte, the home town of slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi which the militants have controlled since June last year.

The pro-GNA forces are mostly made up of militias from western Libya established during the 2011 revolt that overthrew Gaddafi. A militia set up to guard the country's main oil facilities has also been advancing on ISIS.

ISIS still holds several strategic sites in central Sirte, including the university, the main hospital and the Ouagadougou conference hall, where it is believed the militants have stocked large quantities of ammunition and provisions.

The fall of Sirte, 450km east of Tripoli, would be a major blow to ISIS, which has also faced a series of setbacks in Syria and Iraq.

The battle for Sirte has killed around 280 pro-government fighters and wounded more than 1,500, according to medical sources at the unity forces' command centre.

ISIS has been on the retreat in Iraq and Syria but has claimed credit for a surge in global attacks this year, most of them in France and Germany.

US Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey said last week he expected the eventual defeat of ISIS could lead to an increase in attacks in the US and Europe by drawing militants out of Syria.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2016, with the headline 'US launches air strikes on ISIS in Libya'. Print Edition | Subscribe