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Libyan forces retake port in Islamic State stronghold of Sirte

In a major victory over IS, Libyan forces say they have seized port of Sirte and have trapped militants in the city centre
Forces loyal to Libya's UN-backed unity government fire from a tank from centre of Sirte on Friday (AFP)

Forces allied with Libya's unity government say they have recaptured the port in the militant stronghold of Sirte from Islamic State (IS) fighters, taking possession of the group’s most significant stronghold outside of Iraq and Syria

Fierce fighting to retake the city, the hometown of former leader Muammar Gaddafi, began last month. Its fall could be a major setback to militants who have also lost territory in Syria and Iraq where they had declared an Islamic “caliphate”.

On Saturday, the UN-back Government of National Accord's (GNA) military spokesman said senior IS leaders had fled the city to the south but that many militants were still under siege in an area of around five square kilometres inside the city centre.

Earlier this week, warplanes bombed IS positions in Sirte while naval forces fired missiles into the port, officials said. 

The Libyan forces also retook a residential area in the east of Sirte, a spokesman for the forces, Rida Issa, told AFP.

Clashes are now focused on the Ougadougou conference centre, which was once a venue for international summits but has now become an IS command centre.

Forces loyal to the government targeted the conference centre with heavy artillery fire, backed by warplanes, and reports from the scene on Friday indicated that there was heavy street fighting about 2km from the venue.

Eleven members of the forces loyal to the GNA were killed and 45 wounded on Friday, mostly by sniper fire, officials said

The rapid pace of the anti-IS advance has surprised Libyan authorities. “The battle wasn't as difficult as we thought it would be,” a Libyan government official with the GNA said on Friday.

Foreign intelligence services estimate that IS has 5,000 fighters in Libya. Its strength inside Sirte and the total number of civilians living in the city are unclear.

“We are fighting between houses, on the streets, and we won't back down before we eliminate them,” said one GNA combatant, who declined to be named.