Libya Dawn forces and Islamic State (IS) followers have been fighting in Sirte since 14 March and the battle is getting closer and closer to the downtown area. Both sides appear to be ready to fight to the end.
“I’m a military man. There is no more dialogue. My order is to free Sirte of Daesh (Islamic State) people. Then we will free Nawafilya. Then wherever they try to hide.”
Mohamed Lhassan, commander of the Misrata-based 166 Brigade, knows exactly what he is expected to do. His brigade, plus units from Operation Sunrise (formed to capture the oil terminals) and members of Misrata’s Third Force have joined together to recapture Sirte.
“We are isolating Sirte from Nawfaliya to prevent Daesh from getting supplies and to weaken the [IS] fighters in Sirte. We control the main roads going to Sirte,” Lhassan added.
So far, the clashes have happened away from the Sirte downtown area, but they are getting closer.
Despite the fact that some Misratan forces have been sent to reinforce Libya Dawn in the Aziziya area following the LNA’s operation there late last week, the Misrata Operations Room is confident that it has enough fighters to take Sirte. “We can rely on 20,000 fighters in Misrata”, a Misrati official said. It has been reported that Misrata could mobilise as many as 40,000 fighters.
Currently, IS is controls the main buildings in Sirte : the Ougadougou Centere (built by Qaddafi to host African Union meetings), the Mahari Hotel, a food factory, a military prison which could be used as a weapon storage by IS. The jail was targeted in airstrike just over a week ago. IS also has snipers in on top of buildings in the downtown area.
Libya Dawn say they have not yet started a major downtown offensive because of so many families still there. The military alliance seems to want to avoid major collateral damage but Lhassan admits that, at some point, a “big battle” will occur.
In total, it is claimed that more than 500 armed vehicle have been sent to join the fight against IS. However, many of the fighters are far from being professionals.
Abdulhamid, only 21, sits behind a 12.7mm machine gun in a pick-up car on the frontline only few kilometres east of Sirte power plant. “I am here to fight Daesh. We want to take control of Sirte. Last week, I was fighting in Sidra with Operation Sunrise before I was sent here.. Abdulhamid is quickly interrupted by Ahmed, 17. “Don’t say Daesh. We’re here fighting Azlam [Qaddafi supporters] as in 2011. Misrata is fighting for the revolution,” he proclaims.
IS, Qaddafists, Haftar. Since February, Libya Dawn has had difficulties in clearly identifying the enemy in Sirte. But it has changed for the last few days. “We have proof that Daesh is in Sirte from radio conversations we intercepted,” an official from the operations room in Misrata said. “The leaders are foreigners from Tunisia, Egypt and the like. But Qaddafi followers are with them – like the Warfallah and the Qadhadfa living in area Number 2,” he adds.
The accusation about foreign fighters among IS has been borne out by the facts. A journalist recognised the body of Tunisian jihadist Ahmed Rouissi in a Misrata mortuary last Tuesday. Rouissi had been accused of the murders of Tunisian political activists Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013.
Fifteen other bodies from IS camp were brought the same day following a battle between Misratans and IS. “They had no papers but from the faces I could say that only two were Libyans. The others are foreigners,” a medical worker said.
Pointing to the serious danger of IS presence only a two-hour drive from Misrata, Ali Omar Busitta, a member of Misrata Municipal Council, stressed the need for national unity and an end to political divisions. “Daesh is not only a threat to democracy, it is a threat for the existence of Libya. We have to explain to all Libyans that if we continue to fight each other, we will face a great danger. We have to unify like in 2011.”