Libyan forces advance in battle against ISIS

Forces allied with Libya’s unity government began a campaign two months ago to free Sirte from ISIS

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Libyan forces fighting to free the city of Sirte from ISIS forces have surrounded a conference hall in the area still held by militants after air strikes and clashes that killed at least three pro-government fighters, senior officials said.

Forces allied with Libya’s unity government began a campaign two months ago to free Sirte from ISIS, after militants took advantage of fighting between rival factions to gain territory and control the coastal city last year.

Three fighters were killed and more than 30 injured during fighting on Friday after ISIS militants were driven out of the residential 700 district in fierce clashes involving rockets, mortars and gun battles, a senior commander and hospital officials said.

Commanders of the forces, who are mainly from the nearby port city of Misrata, say remaining ISIS fighters are in an area around Sirte’s Ouagadougou conference complex and a nearby hospital. But snipers and landmines have slowed progress.

“Residential area 700 has been liberated and as of 6 p.m. the Ouagadougou center and the hospital are surrounded,” Mohamed Gnaidy, intelligence chief for Misrata forces told Reuters. “Our forces carried out air strikes on Ouagadougou.”

He said Misrata forces had also hit a house where several ISIS commanders were hiding, but it was unclear how many casualties they suffered or how long it would take to clear out remaining militants in Sirte.

Watch: Libya's Sirte has becomes 'fully closed' amid ISIS advance

Misrata forces back the UN-supported unity government in Tripoli that is meant to replace two rival administrations and overcome the divisions among Libya’s various armed factions that slowly emerged after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

The battle in Sirte has been slowed by snipers and explosives as Misrata forces say they lacked the equipment and tactics to flush out militant gunmen among the villas and streets of central Sirte.

Any eventual fall of Sirte would be a huge blow to ISIS in Libya, especially as the militant group is also facing setbacks in Iraq, where it has lost the city of Fallujah and other territory to Iraqi forces.

ISIS commanders in Iraq had sent emissaries to Libya, but the militants struggled to emulate its Iraqi and Syrian successes in the North African country, where they faced resistance from pro-government groups and also rival Islamist fighters.

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