Sunday, September 11, 2016

Heavy losses to forces loyal to Libyan unity government in offensive against ISIS in Sirte

The fighters of Al-Bunyan Al-Marsoos (Solid Structure or BAM), loyal to the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord, have suffered heavy losses in what has been described as the final push to drive the Islamic State (IS) from Sirte.

Most of the members of BAM come from the city of Misrata. Sirte is the last stronghold held by the IS in Libya as they lost the city of Derna to rival Islamists earlier this year. The offensive began in May and advanced quickly until entering Sirte where BAM has met fierce resistance. After August 1st the offensive was helped by U.S. bombing attacks which lately have also involved an advanced helicopter gunship.
The final advance was announced over two weeks ago. A Digital Journal article of August 16th had a headline saying that almost all Sirte had been freed from IS control. However, two weeks later even with U.S. air strikes for support and the U.K. and U.S. special forces helping, the battle still rages. What is even worse is that the toll of dead is rising quickly. Today, August 28, 34 BAM fighters were reported killed and more than 180 wounded according to Reuters. The BAM forces have been killed by landmines, sniper fire, and suicide bombings. A recent tweet puts the death toll today even higher: " Death toll among #BAM forces in today fighting in #Sirte rose to 37 KIA and 217 wounded. #ISIS #Libya."
One tweet suggests that the offensive has been over-hyped: "Why no questioning about consistent misleading media hype about Sirte #Libya? And why no questioning re: U.S. airstrikes and #ISIS casualties?" Perhaps the media hype was due to a too optimistic view of the situation and an underestimation of the defense that the IS was able to mount to stem the advances. Even after U.S. air attacks the defenders have been able to exact a heavy toll as is evident from today's casualties. There certainly is a question about ISIS casualties as no one seems to be keeping good track of them. It is not clear how many prisoners are being taken as well.
On Sunday, brigades advanced in the last two areas occupied by the IS. There were advances along the seafront in Number One residential neighborhood, and also advances in street-to-street fighting in neighborhood number three. The BAM forces used tanks, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns to try to break through IS positions. The IS had attempted five suicide car bombings at least one of which was destroyed before reaching its target. The pause in the battle earlier this week was to allow wives and children of IS fighters to leave the zone. Pauses are sometimes made to allow technicians to clear mines from an area before further advances are made. Most of the 80,000 residents have left as well as many IS fighters who have probably dispersed throughout Libya and even to neighboring countries.
A tweet provides some idea of the extent of recent advances: "#Libya | The 166th battalion states that the forces control 50% of the neighborhood 1 and a large part of the neighborhood 3 as well." The IS had captured Sirte in June of 2015.
A spokesperson for the BAM forces, Reda Issa said: "Our forces entered the last areas held by Daesh in Sirte: district number one and district number three. The final battle for Sirte has started." "Daesh" is an Arabic term for the IS. Given that the Headquarters of the IS and many other areas have been seized recently announcing a final battle at this stage may not be premature.


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