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Pro unity government forces advance on IS-held Sirte

Forces aligned with Libya’s UN-backed unity government said they have killed a key Islamic State operative and advanced on Sirte, seizing two new checkpoints in a battle which left 30 IS militants dead.

Operation Al-Bunyan al-Marsus or “Compact Building” announced the killing of “internationally-wanted” IS chef Khalid al-Shayeb – an Algerian better known by his nom-de-guerre Abu Sakhr, who they said helped strengthen the terror group in Libya and coordinated operations across North Africa.

Al-Bunyan al-Marsus, a Misrata-based Sirte campaign, was officialized by the Government of National Accord earlier this month to flush out the terror group from its stronghold in the central Libyan city. It rivals an operations room formed by General Khalifa Haftar in the east, which under operation name Gardibia 2 has also vowed to liberate the embattled the jihadi stronghold.

According to a Sunday statement posted on Al-Bunyan al-Marsus’s Facebook page their forces killed Khaled al-Shayeb during clashes at Al-Baghla, just south of Abu Grain. According to a source at the General Prosecutor’s office Al-Shayeb had been sent to Libya by ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to expand the Group’s Libyan affiliate. As military coordinator for North Africa Al-Shayeb allegedly also masterminded the Bardo Museum attack in Tunisia in March in which over 20 tourists were killed. His body – pictures of which were published online – was identified by various people, including IS fighters detained by the Special Deterrence Force in Tripoli, the post read. Al-Shayeb had already been declared dead on several occasions.

The announcement came just days after Bunyan Marsus said it had advanced on Sirte seizing two key checkpoints on Friday, in a battle that left 30 IS militants dead.

Backed by warplanes, they said they had taken the 50k checkpoint and the 30k checkpoint (on the coastal road 50 and 30km from Sirte respectively), as well as a power station, in a battle dubbed Al-Sdada Mayrtrs commemorating the soldiers who were who killed in IS suicide attacks on Sdada checkpoint, some 70km south of Misrata.

“Our force units advanced, with the assistance of the air force, to the 50K check point and soon moved further and took control of the 30k check point and then the steam station. They advanced some kilometres east of steam station before they retreated back to secure positions,” the English-language statement read. “IS fighters fled the clashes and left behind thirty dead bodies. At the steam station, our units destroyed two armed vehicles and two ISIS vehicles ran away.”

In statements on Saturday the Operations Room said their forces had finished a sweep of Wadi al-Lud and Abu Njaim, southwest of Sirte on the road into the Jufra district, where military engineers had removed landmines planted by IS as they fled.

IS had overrun this area in early May, after launching a double suicide bombing on Abu Grain and Sdada checkpoints and seizing four villages including Abu Njaim.

Landmines left by IS have caused a number of casualties in the last few months and have prevented forces in east Libya from moving forward. Most recently on Wednesday three adults and two children were rushed to hospital in Misrata after a mine explosion in Al-Baghla village, one of the four taken by IS in early May same land seizure.

The news of the advances comes amid reports that British special forces are on the ground assisting the Misrata-based operations room. According to The Times of London, British special forces have been helping west Libya forces since the start of May. On the 12th they helped take out an IS suicide truck bomber at Sdada bridge. “The help of our foreign friends here, British and American, has been invaluable,” a a senior Libyan commander told The Times this week . “Without their help we would be struggling to hold back Daesh [ISIS], as their suicide vehicles and bombs are so well-armoured and cause us so many casualties.”

French papers reported in February that French special forces and intelligence commandos were also in the country launching secret operations against IS, while US special forces were photographed at Wattiya airbase in western Libya in December.

But the push to liberate Sirte has been become increasingly complex amid deepening divisions in Libya, which the west hoped would by united by the creation of the GNA in Tripoli and the appointment of its prime minister Faiez Serraj.

While the unity government has partially succeeded in getting armed groups in the west on board, and in seizing the capital from coalition Libya Dawn – including by making alliances with local armed groups – it has yet to be formally endorsed by the parliament anchored eastern city of Tobruk.

It has also failed to secure the support of divisive but popular army chief Khalifa Haftar, whose Chief of Staff Abderrazaq al-Nadhuri said that their forces were “10km away from Tripoli” and that the city would “very soon be liberated”, speaking at a police graduation ceremony in Zintan  on Thursday.

It followed comments by General Haftar on 20 May that he believed it to be “unthinkable “ for his forces, anchored in the east, to join the GNA until militias aligned to it had been disband.

“Firstly, we have no links with Mr Serraj and the Presidential Council which he leads is not recognized by the parliament [in the east],” Haftar told i-Tele news channel. “Secondly, on this unified command center, I would like to stress that Mr Serraj relies on militias and we refuse them. An army cannot unify with militias so they must be dismantled. It’s unthinkable to work with these armed factions.”

“[IS] does not have the capacity to face the Libyan armed forces, but the battle could take time,” Haftar said. “If the international community supports us, and I ask it to do so by lifting the embargo on weapons, then we could eliminate [IS] in Libya definitively and quickly,” he concluded.

General Haftar also said that to him the GNA was “merely ink on paper” and its Operations Room “meaningless bidding” in a previous interview on Libya Channel and Al Hadath Channel on May 17.

GNA prime minister Serraj has managed to secure the backing of the international community who still hope he will succeed in bringing Libya’s warring factions together.

On Saturday Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby received Serraj and his foreign minister designate Mohamed Siala in Egypt to assure his support for the unity government.

Libya strives to develop its relations with the Arab countries,” Serraj said. “The Presidency Council must prevent the breakdown of Libya by making important decisions. The Presidency Council is open to all initiatives that seek to end the crisis in Libya”.

Libya has also been looking for logistical help and additional weapons from the West, which initially offered to send thousands of troops to Libya to help it in the war against IS. The plan to send troops was scaled back this week during a summit of the G7 industrial powers as Libyan officials said they did not want boots on the ground.  “The situation is apparently not grave enough for us to act,” a senior NATO diplomat told Reuters. “We need a real crisis.”

“We are looking at a support role, one that is low profile,” said a senior French official involved in Libya policy. “The risks are very real and our resources modest.”

Following news that British special forces were engaged in Libya on Friday Prime Minister David Cameron said that the UK must support the Libyan government to help it to gain control over a country which in its present state “is a danger to us all”.

“It is clearly in our interest to do what we can to support the new fledgling Libyan government … because of the state it’s in is a danger to all of us,” Cameron told a news conference during a summit of the G7 industrial powers.

“We have an interest in doing what we can to support the new government to help it to grow, to help it have the ability to control that country.”

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