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US launches first anti-IS air strikes in Libya's Sirte

Libyan prime minister says attacks, confirmed by US, caused 'heavy losses' among Islamic State militants

Libyans demonstrate in Benghazi for military forces to re-capture Sirte from IS without foreign intervention on 6 May 2016 (AFP)

The US military conducted air strikes over Libya on Monday following a government request to target the Islamic State (IS) group, the Pentagon says.

The strikes targeted positions in the port city of Sirte, an IS stronghold and caused "heavy losses," said Fayes Sarraj, the prime minister of the UN-back Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA).

"At the request of the Libyan Government of National Accord, the United States military conducted precision air strikes against ISIL targets in Sirte, Libya, to support GNA-affiliated force," Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said on Monday.

One strike destroyed an IS tank that had been targeting civilians, and a second strike hit two IS vehicles that "posed a threat" to local forces, Cook said.

The US strikes in Sirte "will continue," he added.

President Barack Obama authorised the bombings following recommendations from top Pentagon officials, and the strikes are "consistent with our approach to combating ISIL by working with capable and motivated local forces," Cook said. 

"The US stands with the international community in supporting the GNA as it strives to restore stability and security to Libya," he said.

In a televised speech al-Sarraj, said: "The first American air strikes on precise positions of the Daesh [IS] organisation were carried out today, causing heavy losses."

Sarraj stressed that the US strikes were carried out in coordination with the military command centre of pro-GNA forces, and that no foreign troops would be deployed in Libya.

"This has allowed our forces on the ground to take control of strategic positions," he said, adding that the American involvement would be "limited in time and will not go beyond Sirte and its suburbs".

Italy, which has supported the anti-IS offensive in Sirte by providing medical care for seriously wounded GNA forces, said it welcomed the US strikes.

"This took place on the request of the Government of National Accord, in support of forces loyal to the government, with the shared objective of contributing to the reestablishment of peace and security in Libya," the foreign ministry said.

Italy has offered to lead an international peacekeeping force in Libya if the fledgling unity government requests such an intervention.

The Tripoli-based GNA launched an operation in May to retake the IS bastion of Sirte, the hometown of former strongman Muammar Gaddafi who was killed in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011. Militants were able to seize the town in June 2015 and have ruled with an iron fist ever since. 

The UN says more than 90,000 have now left Sirte - two thirds of the city's population - including 35,000 in the two months since the start of a Libyan offensive to take back the city.  

"Then Islamic State arrived, and the end of our lives began," Fatima, who fled IS last week told Middle East Eye after escaping the city. "They took possession of all aspects of our lives."

There have been previous indications that British commandos are supporting Libya’s battle against IS in Sirte, in terms of fighting and directing assaults on the frontlines and running intelligence and surveillance from a base in Misrata, according to Libyan soldiers.

Leaked tapes, obtained by Middle East Eye, found evidence to suggest that a multinational military operation involving British, French and US forces was coordinating air strikes in support of a renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, who is battling Islamist militias from a base near Benghazi in eastern Libya, some 600km from Sirte. 

Haftar has refused to acknowledge the GNA and if western support for his operation is firmly established, the issue could prove extremely problematic for the West. 

IS in retreat? 

The fall of Sirte, 450 kilometres east of Tripoli, would be a major blow to IS, which has also faced a series of setbacks in Syria and Iraq.

The battle for Sirte has killed around 280 pro-government fighters and wounded more than 1,500, according to medical sources at the unity forces' command centre.

The GNA advance slowed after an unexpectedly rapid initial breakthrough into the Mediterranean city on 9 June.

The coastal city is considered one of IS's most important areas of operation outside of Syria and Iraq.

There are between 2,000 and 5,000 IS militants from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Morocco and Mauritania deployed in Sirte, Tripoli and Derna, according to a report that UN chief Ban Ki-moon submitted to the Security Council last month.

The pro-GNA forces are mostly made up of militias from western Libya established during the 2011 revolt that overthrew Gaddafi. 

A militia set up to guard the country's main oil facilities has also been advancing on IS.

The GNA was the result of a UN-brokered power-sharing agreement struck in December, but it has yet to be endorsed by Libya's elected parliament based in the country's far east.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.