dIn response to a request by the UN-backed Government of National Accord, the US planes bombed Islamic State (IS) targets in Sirte. The few remaining IS forces in Sirte are surrounded in an area of about 5 square miles in the center of the city. Although the IS was expected to have been overcome by now, advances have been slow with stiff resistance. The Al-Bunyan Al Marsoos (Solid Structure, BAM) forces are mostly brigades from the city of Misrata and are loyal to the GNA. They have been able to encircle the Islamic State with the help of forces from the Petroleum Forces Guard (PFG) who advanced from the east and captured several towns.
PM Faiez Serraj of the GNA said: "The first air strikes were carried out at specific locations in Sirte today causing severe losses to enemy ranks." Peter Cook the Pentagon press secretary said that the strikes did not have an end point at this particular time. The IS have been surrounded and clashing with BAM forces for some time now. It is unlikely they can hold out much longer under US air strikes. The IS has been using civilians as shields. The bombings are quite likely to cause civilian casualties. Sirte is one former home town of former ruler Gadaffi.
This is not the first air strike in Libya. In February attacks were launched against an Islamic State training camp in the western city of Sabratha. Serraj said that the GNA had decided to "activate" its participation in the international coalition against the Islamic State and thus requested the US to carry out targeted air strikes against the IS. He noted that the operations are limited to a specific timetable and were limited to Sirte and its suburbs. Ground support would be limited to technical and logistical help. US special forces are evidently already taking part in the offensive against Sirte carrying out the tasks noted by Serraj. UK special forces are also helping out.
President Obama had authorized the air strikes according to the White House. Pentagon spokesperson Peter Cook said: "The United States military conducted precision air strikes against ISIL targets in Sirte, Libya, to support GNA-affiliated forces seeking to defeat ISIL in its primary stronghold in Libya. These strikes were authorized by the president following a recommendation from Secretary Carter and Chairman Dunford. They are consistent with our approach to combating ISIL by working with capable and motivated local forces." Cook said: "GNA-aligned forces have had success in recapturing territory from ISIL (Islamic State) thus far around Sirte, and additional U.S. strikes will continue to target ISIL in Sirte in order to enable the GNA to make a decisive, strategic advance." The spokesperson said that the attacks on Monday targeted a specific tank location, and two IS vehicles that were a threat to the BAM forces. US and Libyan officials both estimate there are only several hundred IS fighters left in Sirte.
At least 350 BAM fighters have been killed since the Sirte offensive began and more than 1,500 wounded. The BAM troops have complained about lack of help from the GNA and international community. While the troops have had air support from their own fighter jets, the planes lack the weapons and technology to make precision strikes. The Pentagon said that the air strikes represented both manned aircraft and drones.
Recently three French special agents were killed when a helicopter crashed or was shot down while allegedly on a reconnaissance mission against the Defend Benghazi Brigades (DBB) a group of Islamists opposed to General Khalifa Haftar commander in chief of the rival House of Representatives (HoR) Libya National Army. Neither Haftar nor the HoR recognize the GNA or its armed forces. There were many protests against the French presence particularly after there were air strikes following the crash that killed a number of DBB forces. The French ambassador was summoned to appear before Serraj. The request to the US may be meant to show the BAM forces that they do have international support and also to show that not just Haftar has international military support but so does the GNA.
Forces of the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsoos (Solid Structure) had clashed with IS forces at Al-Gardabiya air base just outside of Sirte on Friday.
It has now been confirmed by numerous sources that that the base has been captured as of today. Spokesperson for the brigades, Mohamed Al-Gasri, said that capture of the base was significant strategically as it cut off supply routes to the IS and trapped them in the city.
Three fighters from the brigades were killed and five wounded in the fighting on Saturday.
The base is about 20 kilometers or 12 miles from Sirte. A tweet gives a larger casualty count: "#Libya | At least 4 killed & 16 injured from #GNA Forces after clashes with #IS to retake Al-Qardabiya Airport #Sirte #PT".
IS gained control of Sirte last year and also took control of the air base. The population of Sirte is about 80,000 but it is thought that most have fled. Al-Gasri said that residents who remain would be given a chance to escape before the brigades advanced into residential areas. It remains to be seen if IS will allow them to escape or use them as human shields. Al-Gasri said: "We are concerned now because Daesh (Islamic State) militants are hiding among civilians inside the city."
Al-Gasri claimed that the brigades are operated solely by Libyan senior military leaders and soldiers and denied that there are foreign forces or military experts helping them. This contradicts other reports that claim that UK special forces helped destroy IS suicide vehicles. There are also reports that they are torturing IS by playing loud Bollywood music. Al-Gasri also said that at least 700 IS fighters had been killed since the start of the operation against them.
He asked that the UN arms embargo be lifted so that the brigades could be supplied with more weapons and ammunition. He said that such articles as Night Vision Devices, demining and mine-detecting devices, as well as bullet-proof armour was needed. A recent report also says that the brigades now hold Abu Hadi, Arrawagha, road and Checkpoint 40 which along with seizure of the air base is pushing IS into the city itself.
On the eastern front, the Petroleum Facilities Guard(PFG)which supports the GNA has taken two towns recently. The towns are near the eastern border of territory held by IS. IS is said to have retreated to Harawa just 50 kilometers or 30 miles from Sirte.
The PFG is said to be advancing toward the town.
General Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army associated with the rival government of the House of Representatives(HoR) announced weeks ago that he was marching to liberate Sirte but so far has not had any clashes with them. He could attack from the east and south. Such an attack would be disastrous for the IS which is hard put to defend itself on the two fronts already in operation.
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Ken is a retired philosophy professor living in the boondocks of Manitoba, Canada, with his Filipina wife. He enjoys reading the news and writing articles. Politically Ken is on the far left of the political spectrum on many issues.
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