Libyan forces capture Sirte convention center from IS
Ahmed Elumami, Aidan Lewis, Massimiliano Di Giorgio, Steve Scherer, Reuters, Aug 10 2016
TRIPOLI/ TUNIS/ ROME – Libyan forces (GNA) battling to oust Islamic State (IS) from Sirte on Wednesday captured a large convention hall complex in the city center, seizing a symbolic base where militants once held meetings and flew their black Jihadi flag. Securing the Ouagadougou Conference Centre as well as hospital and university buildings would mark the biggest advance made by Libyan forces in weeks. Pindostan 10 days ago began air strikes on Sirte, which fighters say hastened their progress. Rida Issa, a spokesman in the forces’ media office, said:
Our forces have complete control of the whole of the Ouagadougou complex, they even advanced some distance beyond the complex.
Photos posted on the media office’s Facebook page showed fighters with armed pick-up trucks and a tank milling around next to the convention hall, which was pockmarked by shelling. The large domed building is a landmark in Sirte and was used for meetings and religious instruction by IS after they took control of the city last year. The GNA, which launched their campaign for Sirte in May, saw the advance slowed as they approached the city’s center. Led by brigades from the city of Misrata, the GNA have suffered heavy casualties from IS landmines and snipers. Clashes have been sporadic, with heavier fighting interspersed with lulls lasting for several days. IS militants are encircled in the center of Sirte but still control several residential areas, and the Misrata-led brigades have previously found it difficult to advance through neighbourhoods in house-to-house fighting. Since Aug 1, Pindo drones and fighter jets have carried out a total of 29 strikes, earlier this week targeting several IS emplacements and a gun-mounted pickup, according to statements by AFRICOM.
In Wednesday’s clashes, the government-backed forces said they had also advanced to a cluster of unfinished blocks just west of the center of Sirte, known as the “bone buildings,” which had been used by IS snipers and fighters had described as a major impediment to their progress. At least 16 fighters from the government-backed forces were killed and 11 wounded, Issa said. Earlier in the day, Libyan forces said they had lost a fighter jet over Sirte. Issa said the cause of the crash and the fate of the crew could not be confirmed. IS claimed it shot down the jet, killing a pilot, according to a statement on a website close to the group. In addition to USAF strikes, Libyan brigades in Misrata and Sirte have been working with small teams of Western SOF who have provided intelligence and logistical support as well as strategic advice. A few dozen members of Italy’s SOF are in Libya to collect intelligence, provide non-combat “support” to GNA and other allies present in Libya such as British & Pindo SOF, a source said on Wednesday. The Italian government delivered a brief document outlining the SOF mission in Libya to the parliament’s intelligence services oversight committee last week, said the source, who had knowledge of the document. La Repubblica reported that Italians were teaching Libyans how to diffuse landmines in Sirte. The defense minister and prime minister’s offices did not respond to requests for comment.