Forces allied with the Libyan government said Saturday they had recaptured the port in the militant stronghold of Sirte from ISIS fighters who remain surrounded inside the city, reports Al Arabiya. This comes after brigades made up of fighters, mostly from Misrata, advanced to the edge of the city’s center earlier this week in the wake of their counter attack against the Islamic group last month, in which the terrorists were driven back along the coastal road between Misrata and Sirte. The brigades form part of an operation backed by the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), which has gradually been establishing its power since its arrival in Tripoli in March. This project is viewed by the west as the best chance of uniting Libya’s political and armed factions against ISIS and restoring a level of stability to the country.
According to a source in the operations room in Misrata, Fighters from the front line to the south of Sirte advanced along the coastline to capture the port, about 3 miles from the city center. The brigades have advanced quicker than anticipated, regardless of the fact that their efforts have been hampered by snipers, mines and suicide bombers. “The battle wasn’t as difficult as we thought it would be,” said one official. “Maybe we exaggerated their numbers?”
The Libyan coalition forces have also recaptured a residential area to the east of Sirte, which is the main ISIS base in the country. Were Sirte to fall, it would be a major setback to the Islamic State, having lost territory in Syria and Iraq where they have declared an Islamic “caliphate.”
The rise of ISIS in Libya started in 2014, with the capture of much of the coastal city of Dena before the taking of Sirte last June. It has also established a stronghold in the town of Sabratha, close to the Tunisian border, and carried out acts of terror in the capital, Tripoli. Last September, Abu al Mughirah al Qahtani, the regional leader, called for more Jihadists to enter Libya to increase its power in the country, resulting in a flood of fighters into the region.
The advance of ISIS into Libya has given the movement access to a large part of the Mediterranean coast, enabling it to take advantage of the migrant traffic moving over to Europe. It is also an important base from which to launch attacks into Tunisia and Egypt. It is believed that the attacks on tourists in the town of Sousse last year were carried out by Libyan trained Islamic State operatives.
Having been driven out of Derna last year, and bombed by U.S. airstrikes in Sabratha, it is expected that the ISIS forces will regroup and consolidate in the Libyan desert. Geoff Porter, an expert on Libya and president of North Africa Risk Consulting, said that “The Islamic State in Libya does not have to be a replica of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to be dangerous and disruptive for Libya and its neighbors.”
On Friday, as the pro-government forces were bearing down on Sirte, a senior U.S. presidency representative said he was encouraged by progress in Libya. Anti-ISIS American envoy Brett McGurk said the numbers of the extremists had ceased to grow and had settled on around 5,000. “I just don’t want to get ahead of the situation because it remains pretty fluid. But we’re encouraged by the progress they’re making,” he said. “They’ve been able to control Sirte by force. But once you have a credible force on the ground that moves against them, there is a chance that they could crack pretty quickly.”
The clashes on Friday have left 11 brigade members dead and 35 wounded, bringing the total brigade fighters killed to over 100, with 500 wounded, since the beginning of the campaign in early May.
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