Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the Islamic State should be pushed out of its only city stronghold in Libya soon as government forces and pro-government militias get airstrike assistance from the United States.
Libyan media have reported that ISIS is largely flushed out of Sirte, but a pocket of stubborn resistance remains.
U.S. African Command said 15 strikes were conducted from Sept. 2-5, mostly on enemy fighting positions chosen in coordination with the Libyan government. Operation Odyssey Lightning has conducted 125 strikes since Aug. 1.
Casualties have been heavy on the ground, with some 400 Libyan soldiers and militiamen losing their lives in the battle to evict ISIS. The terror group has also suffered significant casualties, and neighboring countries fear the escaping remnants will set up shop in their area.
Sirte was captured by ISIS in June 2015; a French security source told Agence France-Presse that many of the thousands of fleeing ISIS fighters “have evaporated in the south of the country.”
The Libya Herald said forces have to go building-by-building in the coastal city, taking out sniper positions of the ISIS holdouts and searching what remains for inevitable booby traps; on Sunday they disposed of 10 tons of seized ISIS explosives in a huge detonation outside of the city. This week they’ve recaptured a bank and the civil courthouse.
“Among the finds has been a cache of documents detailing payments to fighters, most of them apparently non-Libyans, including Egyptians, Sudanese, Senegalese and Tunisian. Within them is a receipt for LD 300 paid by a Sudanese man, apparently for an abducted woman,” states a Tuesday report. “…While some fighters persist in using daredevil tactics in open spaces, experienced BM snipers are seeking to suppress terrorist snipers who have claimed a regular toll among their attackers.”
BM stands for the Libyans’ op name: Al-Bunyan Al-Marsoos, meaning “solid structure.”
Appearing with his British counterpart at a joint press conference in London on Wednesday, Carter was asked how soon until ISIS is completely flushed out of their onetime stronghold in Libya.
“Well, with the support of our airstrikes, those forces, the GNA-aligned forces, have now cornered ISIL in one small section of the city of Sirte. And I expect that they’ll eliminate that — any remaining opposition shortly,” the Defense secretary replied.
“And that’s a good thing. That means Sirte will have been rid of ISIL, which was its principal concentration in Libya. That doesn’t end our continuing efforts in Libya, both military and political. We’ll continue to support those who combat ISIL there, as everywhere else around the world.”
Carter noted that Libyans still “have differences among themselves, and they need to be resolved for the sake of the country.”
“But one thing I have no doubt of is that when those differences are resolved, they’re going to get rid of ISIL from Libya, because they don’t like foreigners, they’re very patriotic in Libya, and when they unify, they will even more effectively operate against Libya,” he added. “That’s a good thing. You don’t see that everywhere. But that level of determination — it’s very important to get the various parties together, too. That’s a very complicated thing to do, but I just wanted to mention that because that needs to be said alongside what is the prospect of the final elimination of ISIL in Sirte.”
In a speech earlier in the day at Oxford, Carter noted that Libya is a country that “a few months ago many predicted would become the next ISIL headquarters,” but “our airstrikes and support of local forces aligned with the Government of National Accord has shrunk ISIL’s presence in Sirte to a single neighborhood.”
“We’ve entered a decisive phase in our campaign. Our coalition has expanded its geographic reach, intensified its operations in the air, on the ground and in cyberspace, and we’ve enabled our local partners to take and hold territory,” he said. “ISIL will be simply unable to resist this pressure. They’re still a dangerous adversary, and their lasting defeat will take time, but we won’t let up until ISIL is defeated.”