Is­lamic State pushes back against push to purge Sirte

Po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tain­ties ham­per drive against ter­ror

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY RAMI MUSA

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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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