Libyan forces said on Tuesday they had taken one of the last districts in central Sirte held by Islamic State militants, battling snipers and car bombs in their campaign to recapture the entire city.
Forces aligned with Libya’s UN-backed government in Tripoli are three months into a campaign to oust Islamic State from their former North African stronghold and have encircled the militants in a shrinking section of the city centre.
Since August 1, their progress has been aided by US air strikes on Islamic State vehicles, weapons and fighting positions. The US Africa Command said it had carried out a total of 48 strikes as of Sunday.
The Libyan forces are composed mainly of brigades from the western city of Misrata. After they secured key sites south of central Sirte last week, fighting shifted into neighbourhood Number 2, which the brigades said they had now captured.
“On Tuesday morning clashes erupted … that led successfully to the recapture of neighbourhood Number 2 with the cooperation of a tank unit to confront Islamic State snipers,” said Rida Issa, a spokesman.
“The neighbourhood is now completely under control of our forces,” he said, adding his side had also made incursions into neighbourhood Number 1, situated in the heart of Sirte, the hometown of late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
The Misrata-led forces had faced four vehicle-borne bombs, two of which they had destroyed on the ground before they could reach their targets, Issa said.
“One unfortunately exploded near our forces but there are no casualty figures, and the fourth one was bombed by a warplane. We do not know whether it was US air strike or our air defence.”
Government-backed forces have been carrying out their own, regular air strikes over the Mediterranean coastal city with a fleet of ageing fighter jets.
At least eight combatants from those forces had been killed and more than 80 wounded in Tuesday’s clashes, according to Akram Gliwan, a spokesman at Misrata’s central hospital. Some were hit by the car bomb, others by snipers and land mines, Gliwan said.
Islamic State seized control of Sirte last year, turning it into a base for Libyan and foreign jihadists and extending its control over about 250 km of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline.
But it has struggled to win broad support or retain territory in Libya, and losing Sirte will be a major setback for the ultra hardline Islamist group, which has already lost ground to US-backed military campaigns in Iraq and Syria.
Almost all Sirte’s estimated population of 80,000 fled as Islamic State imposed its rule on the city or during the fighting of the past three months.