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Libya's Pro-government Forces Set to Declare Victory in Sirte


Soldiers from a force aligned with Libya's new unity government advance on the southeastern outskirts of the Islamic State stronghold of Sirte, June 9, 2016.

Pro-government Libyan forces battled the last remaining Islamic State fighters in the center of the Libyan port city of Sirte early Saturday, with a spokesman saying top IS leaders had fled into the desert to avoid the onslaught.

General Mohammed al-Ghasri also told reporters that fighting in the city was confined to areas near a downtown conference center, which IS fighters had converted into a command post.

The Associated Press quoted the general as saying British and U.S. experts were assisting his forces by providing logistical support and intelligence on IS suicide bombers, while helping with strategical and tactical planning.

Pro-government militia from the western city of Misrata reached Sirte's outskirts earlier in the week, despite being slowed by mines and attacks by suicide bombers.They began the battle for Sirte, former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's hometown, in early May. The U.N.-backed Libyan government said more than 100 government forces had been killed and more than 400 wounded in the battle to take the city.

Al-Ghasri's forces are backing the newly formed Government of National Accord (GNA) and its presumptive leader, Fayez Al-Sarraj – widely seen in the West as Libya's best hope for stability in an otherwise chaotic country.

Sarraj and other key members of the national unity government were smuggled into Libyan territory by sea earlier this year, with broad European and U.S. backing.

Libya has been in chaos since Gadhafi was toppled and killed in 2011. Rival armed factions have spent the last five years trying to grab power and take control of Libya's oil industry.

The fight for oil fields and refineries has led to devastating fires and damage and has destroyed the Libyan economy. As as many as 1.3 million of Libya's 6.3 million people need humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.

The turmoil also has opened the door to extremists, such as Islamic State, to grab territory.

IS last year took control of Sirte, the only major IS-held city outside of Iraq and Syria. The Islamist militant group, however, has struggled to gain territory in Libya, and the loss of the Mediterranean city would be a major blow to IS.