Cornered IS undefeated in Libya battle
TRIPOLI: After a swift initial thrust into the Islamic State group’s bastion in Libya, six months on unity government forces still face dogged resistance from militant holdouts cornered in the Mediterranean city of Sirte. Forces loyal to Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) announced the launch of the battle for Sirte, 450 km east of Tripoli, on May 12. Within weeks, GNA forces recaptured large chunks of the coastal city that IS militants had seized in June 2015 as a staging post for an expansion into North Africa.
But they have failed to dislodge the last pockets of IS fighters, holed up in the fiercely-defended district of AlGiza Al-Bahriya, in a costly battle that has left at least 667 dead and 3,000 wounded in GNA ranks. “The final assault is being held up... mainly due to the fact that it will result in very intense street fighting and Daesh (IS) is determined to defend its positions right down to the last square meter,” Rida Issa, spokesman for the pro-GNA forces, told AFP. Ethan Chorin, a former US diplomat posted in Tripoli and now a consultant, has another explanation for why the assault, which is backed by American air strikes, has got bogged down. “Those fighting ISIS in Sirte with Western backing are not all motivated, nor are they highly organized,” he said, using another acronym for IS. But Issa said loyalist forces were taking a step-by-step approach to the recapture of Sirte to limit casualties, not only in their own ranks but also among civilians “who Daesh are using as human shields” and whose numbers are unknown.
As for IS, the militants do not disclose their casualties but Issa gave an estimate of between 1,800 and 2,000 dead. On Wednesday, the US military announced a resumption of anti-IS air strikes in Sirte following a oneweek break, as part of an operation launched on Aug 1 in support of the GNA that has totted up 368 raids.
Cries of Civilians
With the jihadists now encircled in an area of less than one square kilometre, “it is unclear what the impact of (further) air strikes would be”, said Mattia Toaldo, a Libya expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The battle has taken longer than expected for a number of reasons: First they have encountered more resistance than expected... they suffered more casualties and eventually started to feel war fatigue,” he said.