ROME - Libya’s U.N.-negotiated unity government is claiming an offensive that’s close to driving Islamic State militants from the coastal city of Sirte is evidence it is making progress at last in establishing its credibility.
The offensive, which has made rapid advances in the past three days, is boosting hopes the struggling Government of National Accord (GNA) may be able to build up a new Libyan army on the back of the success and encourage militias loyal to a rival government in the east of the country to defect.
But the unity government’s authority remains patchy even in the west of the country — which was dramatically demonstrated this weekend when Tripoli’s general prosecutor confirmed that the bodies of at least a dozen loyalists of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had been found just days after they were released from detention.
The victims were from two groups of detainees held at Tripoli’s al-Ruwaimi prison or at the Mitiga air force base a court in the capital ordered to be freed. The bodies started to be found on Friday in different parts of the city, six of them just east of Tripoli’s international airport. Some officials told VOA the latest count they had Sunday was 17 bodies. The victims had been tortured before being shot in their heads.
The GNA issued a statement condemning the murders and announced it had ordered an investigation. The U.N. special envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, says he is “saddened and disappointed” by the summary executions. He tweeted Saturday: “Circumstances of the murders must be investigated promptly and with transparency by the authorities. “will follow up!”
But most of the country’s attention was focused Sunday on Sirte, the hometown of Libya’s onetime strongman Col. Gadhafi, which IS has boasted as its stronghold in Libya since the end of 2014. The militants have been threatening to use it as a springboard for terrorism in nearby Italy, just a boat ride away. And in February 2015, IS carried out a gruesome ritual beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians on the Sirte shoreline, posting a video of the barbarity online.
Resistance holding on
Resistance has not completely melted away and snipers in the center of the city maintained fire on the advancing pro-GNA forces, mainly drawn from militias from the town of Misrata; however, a militia spokesman said the GNA forces were confident of being able to clear out the whole of the port city within days.
“We think that Sirte will be fully liberated within days, not weeks,” said Gen. Mohamed al-Ghasri. “Their snipers, ISIS snipers are a problem and they are accurate from long distances.”
Earlier, Ghasri told The Associated Press his forces had secured the strategic port area and that the jihadists were pinned in a small part of the city located near the conference center.
After capturing the airport last week and the seaport on Friday, troops loyal to the U.N.-backed unity government are now pounding the conference center with artillery and mortar rounds.
IS militants on Sunday were only able to respond with sniper fire. But the cost of the GNA advance over the last week, which saw the Misratan militias advance more than 160 kilometers in a week, has been costly with more than 100 pro-GNA fighters killed and as many as 600 wounded in the fighting.
U.N. envoy Kobler stressed at the weekend the need for the international community to deliver medical supplies to Libya. Hospitals in Misrata say they have been struggling to treat the number dead and wounded arriving from the battlefront.
Pro-GNA commanders say U.S. and British Special Forces have been providing technical support in the battle. “The British and U.S. experts are helping us with logistical and intelligence to deal with Daesh suicide bombers and tactical and strategic planning,” Ghasri said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
The rapid collapse of IS forces in Sirte has prompted some to question recent Western estimates of the militant strength in the coastal city, which will be the third bastion IS has lost in the past few months. In February, the group was driven out of a base in the western town of Sabratha; and locals ousted the jihadists from Derna in the northeast last year. Western officials had put the IS strength at 6,000 fighters, most drawn from Tunisia, Egypt and sub-Saharan countries.
Pro-GNA loyalists are now preparing for street-to-street fighting to seize the small area IS militants still occupy. Misratan officials say as the pro-GNA militias have advanced, they have found the bodies of militants executed in Sirte; many were handcuffed and officials say they suspect they were shot because they wanted to flee.
It is unclear how the battle for Sirte will impact the standoff between forces backing the GNA and those supporting a rival government in the east. Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the commander of forces loyal to the National Salvation Government in the east and headquartered in Beida, held his men back from entering the battle for Sirte.