EXCLUSIVE: Vicious fighting kills dozens as Libyan forces close on Sirte
SIRTE, Libya - Field hospitals behind the frontlines in Libya's Sirte were full on Wednesday after fierce fighting against Islamic State (IS) militants left 36 dead and more than 140 wounded in a single day, with the toll expected to rise as battles continue overnight.
“I am so angry and upset I almost have no words left,” Mohamed al-Ghossri, spokesman for the Libyan forces operating under the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) told MEE. “If we had been supported with armoured cars, decent weapons and ammunition, many of these losses could have been averted."
The small field hospital outside Sirte was overwhelmed with wounded. A limited number of ambulances available struggled to transfer the seriously wounded to Misrata hospital for treatment. Many had lost limbs or suffered shrapnel injuries.
With most casualties originating from Misrata, anxious relatives crowded outside the city’s hospital into the early hours of Wednesday morning, desperate for news of their loved ones.
“We are not going to keep asking the government or the international community for help,” said Ghossri, who has spent the last month publicly pleading for support. “If anyone wants to help, that would be welcomed, but we will continue this battle ourselves, until we destroy ISIS.”
No safety gear
Many GNA soldiers on the Sirte front lines complained of ammunition shortages and a lack of safety equipment. Among the young men operating ageing Russian anti-aircraft weapons and teenagers in flip-flops with AK-47s, only a handful have flak jackets and even fewer have helmets.
Since the GNA-supported operation against IS began in early May, more than 200 fighters have been killed and about 640 wounded. There are no figures available for the number of IS casualties, although GNA forces say they have killed many.
Tuesday’s casualties came as Libyan forces renewed their offensives against IS in two Sirte districts, after struggling to make significant gains the preceding week.
They advanced several kilometres into the town on several fronts, including the 700 district, where Ghossri said Libyan troops were now just 1km away from the Wogadoodoo centre, adding: “They will never be able to hold that position now.”
The Wogadoodoo centre is a sprawling complex built by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and was one of the first seized by IS when it took control of the town last year.
A former Sirte resident now living in Tripoli, Ahmed, said IS had stockpiled weapons commandeered from military units on the grounds of the complex, and predicted that taking it would be difficult.
“It covers several kilometres and is almost as big as Gaddafi’s residential compound in Tripoli,” he said.
“It is like IS’s castle in Sirte; There is a network of underground rooms beneath the centre that will make taking control more difficult.”
GNA forces also gained ground along the seafront in the west, reducing IS access to the sea which, since Sirte was surrounded 10 days ago, has been the militants’ only escape route.
“This was a big victory for us today,” Ghossri said. Showing video footage on his mobile phone of buildings IS abandoned in Tuesday's fighting, he said there were concerns that militants may now try to hide among civilians.
“They were living here, and we found a lot of hair on the floor where they had obviously cut their beards and hair, hoping to avoid detection by posing as civilians,” he said.
Although most Sirte residents fled the town in early May, IS forced some families to stay.
Ghossri estimated that IS-controlled territory in the city had been reduced to about five sq km. But former resident Ahmed said the area was likely to be double that, based on media reports, adding that the Wogadoodoo centre alone covered several square kilometres.
“Although I haven’t been in Sirte for three months, when I was last there, IS was concentrating its activities on the Wogadoodoo centre and the port, and I expect these will be the hardest battles ahead,” he said.
During the last week, the fiercely contested and strategic port of Sirte has repeatedly changed hands, and claims of control by GNA forces have been promptly followed by IS social media releases showing images of its fighters moving freely around the port.
“We had to pull back from the port because there are snipers occupying a nearby hotel that overlooks it,” a fighter with the al-Wadi brigade Mohamed told MEE on Sunday. “The route up to the port is under our control but we couldn’t stay inside because of the proliferation of snipers, and the port itself is now back under enemy control.”
He was one of a dozen young soldiers crouched behind sandbanks less than half a kilometre from IS positions, where any movement attracted the sharp crack of fire from observant IS snipers.
Weapons smugglers supplying IS
According to his unit’s observations, the number of IS fighters operating near the port alone was between 400 and 500. Militants were believed to still be receiving weapons through the port, he said, adding that al-Wadi brigade had spotted a number of suspect fishing vessels along the coast.
The GNA forces have no warships and the Sirte coastline is patrolled only intermittently by a heavily armed modified tugboat from Misrata.
Since GNA forces surrounded Sirte, they have met fierce resistance from IS militants who have deployed snipers across the town and continue a relentless campaign of suicide bombings on military positions.
“There have been several suicide attacks against us here, mainly at night,” said 24 year-old Mohamed al-Khtel, speaking from another frontline snaking around the outskirts of Sirte. “One was a Toyota truck. We were shooting at it when it exploded, and the flames were so high, it illuminated everything like daylight. Another was a single suicide bomber. I saw his face. He was not afraid to die. It was something unbelievable.”
IS has waged a brainwashing campaign in central Libya for more than a year, including via its al-Bayan radio station, which broadcast updates 24 hours a day about IS activities, along with religious instruction, calls to arms and nasheed (religious songs), before being taken off air on Monday.
In one of its final broadcasts, a lecture urged supporters not to fear death and but to focus rather on the afterlife.
“This life has no meaning. You should live to fight for good, for your religion, and your faith. Real life is not this life, it is the life awaiting you in paradise,” said the IS adherent, speaking in slow clear Arabic to a background recording of birdsong.
GNA fighters scoffed at IS’s claims to be devout. “This militia called ISIS does not represent Islam. They cover themselves in the disguise of religion and think they are going to heaven, but surely they are going to hell because Allah did not tell us to kill ourselves,” said Khtel.
“We believe we will win this fight because we are in the right. We are fighting this battle not just for Libya, but for the whole world because IS poses a threat to humanity. They are enemies of life,” he said. “Even though we don’t have bullet-proof vests, night vision equipment or even enough ammunition, we are not scared of ISIS and we are ready for this battle.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.