Libyan forces say advancing toward recapture of Sirte from Islamic State

SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan forces said on Tuesday they had taken one of the last districts in central Sirte held by Islamic State militants, battling snipers and car bombs in their campaign to recapture the entire city.

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Forces aligned with Libya’s U.N.-backed government in Tripoli are three months into a campaign to oust Islamic State from their former North African stronghold and have encircled the militants in a shrinking section of the city center.

Since Aug. 1, their progress has been aided by U.S. air strikes on Islamic State vehicles, weapons and fighting positions. The U.S. Africa Command said it had carried out a total of 48 strikes as of Sunday.

The Libyan forces are composed mainly of brigades from the western city of Misrata. After they secured key sites south of central Sirte last week, fighting shifted into neighborhood Number 2, which the brigades said they had now captured.

“On Tuesday morning clashes erupted ... that led successfully to the recapture of neighborhood Number 2 with the cooperation of a tank unit to confront Islamic State snipers,” said Rida Issa, a spokesman.

“The neighborhood is now completely under control of our forces,” he said, adding that his side had also made incursions into neighborhood Number 1, situated in the heart of Sirte, the hometown of late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

The Misrata-led forces had faced four vehicle-borne bombs, two of which they had destroyed on the ground before they could reach their targets, Issa said.

“One unfortunately exploded near our forces but there are no casualty figures, and the fourth one was bombed by a warplane. We do not know whether it was U.S. air strike or our air defense.”

The government-backed forces have been carrying out their own, regular air strikes over the Mediterranean coastal city with a fleet of ageing fighter jets.

At least eight combatants from those forces had been killed and more than 80 wounded in Tuesday’s clashes, according to Akram Gliwan, a spokesman at Misrata’s central hospital. Some were hit by the car bomb, others by snipers and land mines, Gliwan said.

Islamic State seized control of Sirte last year, turning it into a base for Libyan and foreign jihadists and extending its control over about 250 km (155 miles) of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline.

But it has struggled to win broad support or retain territory in Libya, and losing Sirte will be a major setback for the ultra hardline Islamist group, which has already lost ground to U.S.-backed military campaigns in Iraq and Syria.

Almost all Sirte’s estimated population of 80,000 fled as Islamic State imposed its rule on the city or during the fighting of the past three months.

Writing by Aidan Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich and David Gregorio