Forces allied with Libya’s unity government said Saturday they had recaptured the port in the Takfiri stronghold of Sirte from ISIL group militants who are now surrounded inside the city.
The fall of Sirte, the hometown of ousted dictator Moamer Kadhafi, would be a major setback to the extremists who have also lost territory in Syria and Iraq where they have declared a “caliphate”.
The Libyan forces also retook a residential area in the east of Sirte, the main ISIL base in the North African country, a spokesman for the forces, Rida Issa, told AFP.
The Takfiri are now encircled in an area of around five square kilometers inside the city, he said.
The rapid pace of the anti-ISIL advance has surprised the Libyan authorities.
“The battle wasn’t as difficult as we thought it would be,” a Libyan government official said Friday.
Foreign intelligence services estimate the extremist group has 5,000 militants in Libya, but its strength inside Sirte and the number of civilians living in the city are unclear.
Libya’s unity government forces have fought fierce street battles with the Takfiris around a sprawling Kadhafi-era conference centre which once hosted international summits but now houses an ISIL command centre.
An AFP correspondent at the scene reported heavy street fighting on Friday about two kilometers (one mile) from the Ouagadougou centre.
GNA forces used tanks, rocket launchers and artillery, the correspondent said, while the Takfiris responded with machineguns, mortar rounds and sniper fire.
“We are fighting between houses, on the streets, and we won’t back down before we eliminate them,” said one GNA combatant, who declined to be named.
Warplanes have carried out air strikes around the conference centre and otherISIL positions inside the city, according to social media accounts belonging to the anti-ISIL 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.