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14 loyalists killed in Sirte Islamic State clashes

Pro-government forces recaptured the former IS-bastion after launching an offensive [AFP]

Date of publication: 15 October, 2016

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Clashes between government forces and Islamic State militants killed at least 14 on Friday, as violence continued to escalate in the former IS-bastion, Sirte.

At least 14 pro-government Libyan fighters were killed in clashes with the Islamic State group on Friday, in the militants' former Libya bastion of Sirte, a medical source said. 

"Fighting today began at 9am (0700 GMT) and the toll to now is 13 dead and 25-30 wounded," hospital official Abdellatif Abdel Ali said. 

One fighter, who was shot, later died after being operated upon.

Ali said the majority of those killed were shot in the head by sniper fire.  

Forces allied with Libya's UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) have cornered IS fighters in Sirte, 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of Tripoli, since launching an offensive on May 12.

After a pause in fighting on Thursday, pro-GNA fighters resumed the battle against IS holdouts in a seaside residential district of Sirte.

At least three US air strikes hit IS positions on Friday, an AFP journalist in the city said.

A pro-government forces commander told AFP that IS snipers were slowing the anti-jihadist advance.

"These gunmen are well trained and equipped. The haven't given in even with air raids and the seige we've imposed on them," Al-Hedi Issa told AFP. 

"So we prefer to advance slowly in order to preserve the lives of our fighters."

The fighting has left more than 550 GNA fighters dead and 3,000 wounded. The IS death toll is not known.

IS fighters asserted control in Sirte over the course of 2015 forcing pro-government troops to retreat from the city. 

However, after months of intense fighting, the extremist group is now said to control only a kilometre-long residential strip in the war-torn city. 

According to the UN around 90,000 people – three-quarters of Sirte’s pre-war population – have fled the city since it was taken by IS.

The loss of the city would constitute a major defeat for the group, given current setbacks in Syria and in Iraq, where Iraqi forces are currently preparing for a decisive assault on the city, backed by a host of international actors. 

Living conditions for those that chose to stay are reportedly dire with reports from humanitarian groups stating that there are major shortages of food and medicine in the city.

“Sirte is a collapsed city,” said Claudio Colantoni, the International Medical Corps’ country director for Libya, earlier this week adding that the Libyan government and aid agencies will face a huge challenge to rehabilitate Sirte. 

However, Reuters reported that Libyan officials believe that some IS fighters and commanders have managed to escape Sirte, raising concerns that they will continue to launch guerrilla-style attacks in the country even if the city falls.

While retaking Sirte would constitute a major boost for Libya’s UN-backed government, headed by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, it could also exacerbate rivalry with forces loyal to military strongman Khalifa Haftar. 

In September Haftar seized a number of Libya’s oil ports, including Brega, only 200 kilometres from Sirte. Although Sarraj said in September that Haftar should have a position within the Libyan government Haftar has refused to recognise his authority.

To date, attempts to bring the pair to the negotiating table, led by France, have been unsuccessful.

 

 

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