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Libyan forces claim capture of main Islamic State base in Sirte

Fighters loyal to unity government say central base in 'in their hands' as they progress in liberation of city
Capturing the Ouagadougou centre has been the key goal of pro-GNA forces (AFP)

Pro-government forces in Libya said they seized control of the Islamic State (IS) group's headquarters in Sirte on Wednesday as they advanced to push militants from the city.

"The Ouagadougou centre is in our hands," the operations centre for forces loyal to Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA) said.

"Our forces have complete control of the whole of the Ouagadougou complex - they even advanced some distance beyond the complex," said spokesman Rida Issa.

Fighters also captured Sirte's hospital and university complex, he said, but added that IS remained in three residential areas of the city and in a villa complex near the seafront.

"The announcement of the liberation [of Sirte] will only be made once the entire city is liberated," he told AFP.

Capturing the Ouagadougou centre has been the key goal of pro-GNA forces as they have battled for weeks to oust IS from Sirte, which the militants seized in June last year amid the chaos that followed the 2011 fall of Muammar Gaddafi.

The city's capture raised deep concerns in the West, with fears IS was gaining an important foothold just across the Mediterranean from Europe.

Loyalist forces stepped up their fight for the city in recent days, and the Pentagon announced last week it had begun carrying out air strikes on IS positions in Sirte at the GNA's request.

Pro-GNA forces entered Sirte in June, but their advance slowed as IS hit back with sniper fire, suicide attacks and car bombings.

On Sunday, pro-government forces said the "countdown" had begun for the final assault on IS's holdout positions in the city, which is 450km east of Tripoli.

29 US strikes 

In a statement on Wednesday, the US Africa Command said 29 strikes had been carried out against IS positions as part of "Operation Odyssey Lightning" as of Tuesday.

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that US commandos were working from a joint operations centre on the outskirts of Sirte, the first time they have directly supported Libyan forces in the anti-IS fight.

Since 1 August, US drones and fighter jets have carried out a total of 29 strikes in Sirte, targeting several IS emplacements on Monday and a gun-mounted pick-up truck on Tuesday, according to statements by US Africa Command.

In Wednesday's clashes, the government-backed forces said they had also advanced to a cluster of unfinished blocks just west of the centre of Sirte known as the "bone buildings," which had been used by Islamic State snipers.

At least three fighters from the government-backed forces were killed and 11 wounded, Issa said, adding that he expected the toll to rise.

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, but Islamic State claimed it had shot down the jet, killing a pilot, according to a statement on a website close to the group.

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