Western Libyan forces prepare attack on ISIL stronghold
MISRATA, Libya // Forces in western Libya are preparing to advance on the city of Sirte which was seized by ISIL last year.
Libyan forces were pushing ahead with plans for a counter-attack after the extremists made territorial gains in the last week, according to Brig Gen Mohamed Al Gasri, spokesman for a newly formed military operations room in Misrata.
The fighters based in the city of Misrata would like international logistical support to help retake what has become ISIL’s most important base outside Syria and Iraq, he said, but will not wait for it before launching the operation.
“We are ready and we are preparing our security arrangements to attack Sirte,” said Brig Gen Al Gasri.
The operations room was set up by a UN-backed unity government that arrived in Tripoli at the end of March.
European powers and the United States hope the unity government will be able to unite Libya’s rival political groups and armed factions to take on ISIL, though it is unclear how far its authority extends on the ground.
Misrata’s brigades have largely transferred their support to the unity government from a self-declared government formed in Tripoli in 2014.
But the new government has struggled to win support from another administration based in the east and the military forces allied to it. They have also said they would move against Sirte, though past announcements have come to nothing.
Last month the unity government urged both sides to hold off attacking Sirte before a unified command is created, fearing an uncoordinated offensive could lead to civil war.
“We need logistical support from the international community, and we need weapons and ammunition,” Brig Gen Al Gasri said. “Whether they’re going to support us or not, we will be there soon. We will not stand and watch.”
ISIL took advantage of the political turmoil and security vacuum after the uprising that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi five years ago to build a power base in Libya.
The Misrata brigades were present in Sirte as ISIL began to establish control, but withdrew last summer.
Though it has struggled to win support and hold territory in parts of Libya, ISIL still controls a strip of more than 250 km of Libya’s central coastline, from which it has launched attacks to the east, west and south.
Over the last week it has made gains, carrying out suicide attacks in the sparsely populated area between Sirte and Misrata, including at a major checkpoint at Abu Grain.
Brig Gen Al Gasri confirmed that the extremist group took several villages in the area and that the line of defence was now at Assdada, about 80 km south of Misrata. The militants have dug trenches and planted mines around the Abu Grain checkpoint, he said.
Thirteen members of the security forces were killed and 110 wounded in last week’s fighting, he said.
Wounded fighters at a hospital in Misrata said suicide bombers had attacked in armoured vehicles, one of which approached a checkpoint behind cars carrying families fleeing Sirte.
Misrata brigade members fought to defend the Abu Grain checkpoint for nearly an hour but were forced to withdraw as they were outnumbered, one said.
The eastern military has made some advances against its armed opponents, including fighters loyal to ISIL, in Benghazi – Libya’s second city.
Late on Monday, ISIL said it had executed three men captured during fighting in Benghazi last month.
A hospital spokesman in Benghazi said two of those killed - including one who was beheaded - were volunteer nurses who had been helping treat wounded troops.
Updated: May 11, 2016 04:00 AM