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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

GNA-loyal forces aiming to surround Islamic State stronghold of Sirte in Libya

Forces of the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsoos (Solid Structure), mostly militia from Misrata, say they are aiming to encircle Sirte the last large city stronghold of the Islamic State in Libya.

The forces, who are loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), have moved within 15 kilometers or 10 miles of the city. Only last summer, Misrata brigades had withdrawn from Sirte as the Islamic State took full control. The rival Libyan National Army in the east, under the command of General Khalifa Haftar, launched a two-pronged march to liberate Sirte, weeks ago. He has not yet engaged with IS at all, even though an attack on their eastern border would make defending Sirte much more difficult. He has even launched Operation Volcano against the Shura Council of Derna, jihadists who were instrumental in driving IS from Derna.
The Misrata militia have had to drive back the Islamic State from areas they recently gained, including the key checkpoint town of Abu Grain captured in an offensive launched while the GNA was establishing a unified command. They have made further gains since then. Haftar refused to join the command, claiming the militias needed to be disbanded first and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives must vote confidence in the GNA. Although there have been many meetings of the HoR to vote, all have been either without a quorum or were disrupted so there was no vote. Haftar and those loyal to him are demanding that section 8 of the Libya Political Agreement, which makes the Presidential Council of the GNA head of the Libyan National Army be deleted. They want Haftar to retain his job in the GNA.
Mohamed al-Gasi, military spokesperson, said that government forces had advanced along the road to Sirte as far as the steam hydro plant only about 15 kilometers from the center of Sirte. They were seeking full control of the plant as well as a road that runs south to Waddan. Al-Gasi said: "The next step is to encircle Sirte, and then we will ask the residents to try to leave. We don't want to enter now because of the residents. But if it becomes a battlefield we can enter within hours."
The Misrata brigades have suffered many losses during the offensive, with the Islamic State using suicide bombing attacks. A single truck bombing killed 32 people last week. Since the beginning of May 75 fighters have been killed and more than 350 injured. Hospitals have been running out of supplies. Some wounded have been flown out of the country to be treated in Italy. Al-Gasri said many IS fighters had been killed as well. UK special forces working with the Misrata militia are said to have blown up suicide trucks. The government forces' engineers are still de-mining areas where IS had retreated.
Al-Gasri said that the withdrawal of last year would not be repeated:"This time it's different because there is an internationally recognized government that has pledged to support the army to fight Daesh (Islamic State)." While there a few special forces from various countries, there has as yet been no weapons or ammunition provided, and there appear to be no immediate plan for foreign troops to be involved in combat operations. Some in the Misrata militia complain they are not getting enough support from the central government and its unified command. The heading Libyan National Army (LNA) on the appended video is not accurate. The LNA are the forces of Khalifa Haftar associated with the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR). They have not yet even engaged with the Islamic State in the offensive against Sirte.


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