Forces loyal to Libya’s unity government fought deadly street battles with the Islamic State group in Sirte, as they pressed an offensive to capture the jihadists’ coastal bastion.
Clashes raged on Friday around the Ouagadougou conference centre, a sprawling complex that once hosted international summits in the era of ousted dictator Moamer Kadhafi which is now used as an IS command centre. The loss of Sirte, Kadhafi’s home town, would be a major blow to IS at a time when it is under mounting pressure in Syria and Iraq.
From early in the day, forces aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) pounded IS positions around the complex with heavy artillery fire.
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Warplanes also carried out air strikes around the centre and other IS positions inside Sirte, according to social media accounts belonging to the anti-jihadist operation.
Two GNA fighters were killed and eight wounded and taken to a Misrata hospital, further east, the government said.
An AFP correspondent at the scene reported heavy street fighting about two kilometres (one mile) from the Ouagadougou centre. GNA forces used tanks, rocket launchers and artillery, the correspondent said, while the jihadists responded with machineguns, mortar rounds and sniper fire.
“It was a war with planes and artillery, but now it is street fighting,” said one GNA combatant, who declined to be named. “We are fighting between houses, on the streets, and we won’t back down before we eliminate them.”
Power struggles have prevented Libya’s fledgling government and its allies from ousting IS from its Gulf of Sidra safe-haven for a year.
The GNA, established in Tripoli more than two months ago, has been trying to unify violence-ridden Libya and exert its control over the entire North African country. Foreign intelligence services estimate IS has 5,000 fighters in Libya, but its strength inside Sirte and the number of civilians living in the city are unclear.