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Militant threat hangs over Islamic State's former Libyan stronghold

SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Nearly a year after Islamic State was driven from its Libyan stronghold Sirte, residents surveying their wrecked homes feel neglected and vulnerable, still afraid of the militant threat that has waned but not vanished.

Though security in the Mediterranean coastal city has improved, residents remain wary of jihadists in the desert to the south who have stepped up their activity in recent months, setting up checkpoints and carrying out occasional attacks.

In a country where fighting between rival forces frequently flares, Sirte is particularly exposed. It sits in the center of Libya’s coastline on the dividing line between loose alliances aligned with rival governments in Tripoli and the east.

“If the situation continues like this then Daesh (Islamic State) will come back, no doubt. There was a reason why they came. People were angry, felt sidelined,” said Ali Miftah, a civil servant and father of five.

“Now we don’t get any support from the government. Look at these ruins. We lost everything.”

Last month, Islamic State gunmen staged a suicide attack in Misrata, the coastal city about 230 km (140 miles) to the northwest that led the campaign last year to expel the militants from Sirte.

IS also has sleeper cells in other cities along Libya’s western coast, security officials say, and there is concern foreign fighters seeking sanctuary after defeats in Syria and Iraq could once again exploit the country’s security vacuum and link up with al Qaeda-linked militants in the desert south.

Divisions among Libya’s many armed factions and uncertainty over how long the forces from Misrata that drove Islamic State out will remain in Sirte are compounding residents’ worries.

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In parts of the city, life is slowly returning to normal, though Islamic State’s black logos are still visible on some shops and inhabitants struggle with cash shortages and failing public services, as they do elsewhere in Libya.

But in areas that saw the heaviest fighting, families see little hope of rebuilding their homes.

Sirte, the home city of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, was pounded by nearly 500 U.S. air strikes between August and December last year.

In El Manar and Giza Bahriya, once among Sirte’s best neighborhoods, houses looking onto the crystal blue Mediterranean are now crumpled piles of twisted metal and concrete, doors blasted from their metal frames.

A damaged primary school said to have once been attended by Gaddafi lies abandoned.

Residents say skeletons among the rubble have been left to be tested to see if they belong to Islamic State fighters, or their captives. They are also scared to search their ruined homes because of the unexploded ordnance in the wreckage.

Local forces man checkpoints on the outskirts of Sirte and carry out patrols to the south. But they say they lack the vehicles and weapons to pursue the jihadists, who have retreated into mobile desert camps.

Instead, they rely on the U.S. air strikes that have killed dozens of suspected militants this year.

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“We contain the threat but we cannot chase them in their camps because we lack the right equipment like four-wheel cars needed to drive in the desert,” said Taher Hadeed, an official with the forces securing Sirte.

“It won’t be possible for Daesh to take back the city, but there is a risk of attacks.”


The forces that led the campaign against Islamic State in Sirte last year are nominally loyal to the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli to the west - and Sirte now represents the eastern limit of their control.

Beyond, forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army control oil terminals they seized during the campaign. But for now, the two sides do not coordinate, said Mohamed al-Ghasri, a military spokesman from Misrata.

Residents and officials in Sirte say the threat cannot be dealt with without proper support from the state and professional security forces.

“They are suffering from a lack of services and we don’t see any real efforts or results on the ground at any level,” said Siddeeq Ismaiel, a municipal official.

An estimated 2,500-3,000 homes need to be built so families forced to live in other parts of Sirte or Misrata can return.

“This will never end if there is no government,” said Hamza Ali, a 34-year-old university employee, standing near his brother’s ruined house.

“It will stop maybe for two, three, four, five, six months, then you will hear an explosion somewhere if there is no official security, police.”

Editing by David Clarke