Libya unity forces bombard ISIS in bastion Sirte

Sirte has become ISIS’s Libyan stronghold and its loss would be a huge setback for the extremist group

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Forces loyal to Libya’s unity government bombarded ISIS group positions in Sirte with heavy artillery Friday, a day after thrusting into the militant stronghold on the Mediterranean coast.

The loss of Sirte, the hometown of ousted dictator Muammar Qaddafi, would be a major blow to the militants at a time when they are under mounting pressure in Syria and Iraq.

Forces aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) said on Friday they had targeted ISIS positions with artillery fire around a conference center where the militants had set up a command post.

GNA forces are mostly made up of militias from western cities that have sided with the unity government of prime minister-designate Fayez al-Sarraj and the guards of oil installations that ISIS has repeatedly tried to seize.

On Thursday a spokesman for the forces predicted Sirte could fall within days.

“The operation will not last much longer. I think we’ll be able to announce the liberation of Sirte in two or three days,” said Mohamad Ghassri.

On Thursday warplanes bombed militants positions in Sirte and the navy said it was in control of the waters off the city, located 450 kilometers (280 miles) east of Tripoli and held by ISIS since June 2015.

ISIS has fed on the political and military divisions that have plagued Libya since the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed Qaddafi.

European nations fear that the militants could use the city as a staging post for attacks on their soil.

The US military is pleased with developments in Libya, where government forces are battling to wrest control of the coastal city of Sirte from ISIS, an official said Thursday.

“We certainly are encouraged by the progress we see those government forces making and we will continue to watch it very closely,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said.

“The fact that they are now under pressure in Libya... we think is a good thing and suggests that the Government of National Accord and the forces supporting that government are making progress.”

The US military only has a limited presence in Libya, where small teams of US special operations forces are working to gain intelligence.

And US forces in February conducted an air strike on an extremist training camp near the city of Sabratha, killing dozens.

“We haven’t made any additional decisions about US action at this point,” Cook said.

“We are obviously watching it very closely... if there isn’t a need for the United States and other nations to get involved in Libya, that would be a welcome thing.”

Authorities estimate ISIS has 5,000 fighters in Libya but its strength inside Sirte and the number of civilians living in the city are unavailable.

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