Forces allied with Libya’s unity government said Saturday they had recaptured the port in the militant stronghold of Sirte from ISIS fighters who are surrounded inside the city.
The forces also retook a residential area in the east of Sirte, the main ISIS base in the North African country, a spokesman for the forces, Rida Issa, told AFP.
The fall of Sirte, the hometown of ousted dictator Muammar Qaddafi, would be a major setback to the extremists who have also lost territory in Syria and Iraq where they have declared an Islamic “caliphate.”
Libya’s unity government forces are waging fierce street battled with the jihadists around a sprawling Qaddafi-era conference center which once hosted international summits but now houses an ISIS command center.
Warplanes have carried out air strikes around the center and other ISIS positions inside the city, according to social media accounts belonging to the anti-militant operation.
Eleven members of the forces loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) were killed and 45 wounded on Friday, mostly by sniper fire, Issa said.
On Friday, a top US presidential envoy said he was “encouraged” by progress in Libya, where pro-government forces are bearing down on ISIS’s bastion at Sirte.
Barack Obama’s anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk said the exponential growth of the extremist group had stopped and fighter numbers had plateaued around 5,000.
Post-revolutionary power struggles have prevented Libya’s fledgling government and its allies from ousting ISIS from its Gulf of Sidra safe-haven.
“I just don’t want to get ahead of the situation because it remains pretty fluid. But we’re encouraged by the progress they’re making,” said McGurk.
“They’ve been able to control Sirte by force. But once you have a credible force on the ground that moves against them, there is a chance that they could crack pretty quickly.”
“But I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Libyan officials had expressed some surprise at the speed of ISIS’s retreat.
“The battle wasn’t as difficult as we thought it would be,” said one official. “Maybe we exaggerated their numbers?”
The loss of Sirte would be a major blow to ISIS at a time when it is under mounting pressure in Syria and Iraq.
But analysts have warned the city’s fall would not spell the end of the extremist in Libya, where they have fed on political and military divisions since the 2011 uprising that killed Qaddafi.
If pro-government forces manage to push through Sirte, on the other side they will find forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, who has refused to recognize the government of national accord.
The specter of a showdown had been one reason for the delay in tackling ISIS.
McGurk said the United States was “prepared to obviously work with General Haftar under the umbrella of the Government of National Accord.”
But he added: “Our position is very clear that any armed actor on the field in Libya should recognize the authority of that civilian government.”SHOW MORE