Islamic State pushes back against push to purge Sirte
Political uncertainties hamper drive against terror
BENGHAZI, LIBYA | As Libyan fighters make their final push to dislodge Islamic State militants from their last bastion in Libya, female suicide bombers, including one who appeared to be carrying a baby, were among the group’s last attempts to slow down the fall of the city, government officials said on Monday.
The desperate rearguard action shows the difficulty Libyan forces have had in retaking the largest Islamic State stronghold outside of Syria and Iraq — months after officials declared the battle all but over — while exposing the political uncertainty over what comes next.
Two media officials and a senior military officer said that the city of Sirte is all but liberated, but final clearing operations still must be carried out — focusing on about 13 buildings containing an estimated 30 fighters and suspected of having tunnels dug beneath them. They also say that they are postponing a declaration of the liberation of Sirte until a clear plan is in place for what happens next.
“We have a problem now of who is going to protect the city and what is the mechanism,” said the senior military official, adding, “We are also afraid people will rush back while the city is not secure, filled with land mines and pockets of militants.”
A media official at the anti-Islamic State campaign said, “The mopping up of the last bastion of the group is taking place right now. Practically speaking, the city is under control.”
In one week, the senior military official said that eight suicide bombers tried to delay the advancement of pro-government forces — including three women who blew themselves up near the safe corridors set up for the exit of civilians and the families of Islamic State militants.
A young Tunisian woman who pretended to carry a baby was among the bombers, the senior official and a spokesman said. As she stepped in with the fleeing families, officials said, she blew herself up, killing two women and injuring a number of children. Two other female suicide bombers also struck within two days of each other, however, there were no casualties but the bombers themselves, the officials said.
Islamic State and other extremist groups gained a foothold in Libya over the years of chaos that engulfed the North African country in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Militias, originally made up of NATO-backed rebels, quickly filled the security vacuum
The country has been split between rival parliaments and governments, each backed by a loose array of militias and tribes. Western nations view the newly formed U.N.-brokered government as the best hope for uniting the country, but Libya’s parliament, which meets in the far east, has refused to accept it.
The birthplace of Gadhafi, Sirte has a strategic importance because of its proximity to the oil terminals, Libya’s primary source of revenue. The forces that led the campaign against Islamic State are made up of mainly militias from the western city of Misrata, who have a tense relationship with Sirte residents.
In 2011 Misrata militias conducted a series of extrajudicial killings, sabotage and looting in Sirte, viewing the city as a den of Gadhafi loyalists. Gadhafi was found and killed there after he escaped custody in August 2011, leaving lingering Sirte-Misrata animosities. As a result, officials say that having Misrata forces guard the city could be problematic.
The campaign against Sirte started in June, but stalled several times either because of the ferocity of Islamic State resistance or lack of equipment such as minesweeping gear.
A sniper from Misrata fires toward Islamic State militant positions in Sirte, Libya, as part of the campaign to oust the terror army from the city. Political uncertainties have hampered the drive to reclaim the terror redoubt.