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Libyan forces recapture port in IS stronghold Sirte

Forces allied with Libya’s unity government have recaptured the port in Islamic State [IS] group’s stronghold Sirte, officials said on Saturday.

The government of national accord [GNA] forces continue in their advance towards the city centre after retaking a residential area in the east of Sirte, spokesman Mohammed al-Aredi told The New Arab.

“They are working on clearing and securing the areas captured in preparation for further advances towards the city centre,” al-Aredi.

At least ten soldiers were killed and nearly 35 others wounded in Saturday’s fighting, al-Aredi added.

The fall of Sirte, the hometown of ousted dictator Muammar Gaddafi and a main IS base, would be a major setback to the militant group, who have also lost territory in Syria and Iraq, where they have declared an Islamic “caliphate.”

The rapid pace of the anti-IS advance has surprised Libyan authorities.

“The battle wasn’t difficult as we thought it would be,” a Libyan government official said on Friday.

Foreign intelligence services estimate the extremist group has 5,000 fighters in Libya, but its strength inside Sirte and the number of civilians living in the city are unclear.

Libya’s GNA forces fought fierce street battles with the militants around a sprawling Gaddafi-era conference centre which once hosted international summits but now houses an IS command centre.

GNA forces used tanks, rocket launchers and artillery, an AFP correspondent said, while the militants responded with machineguns, mortar rounds and sniper fire.

“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.

Warplanes carried out airstrikes around the conference centre and other IS positions inside the city, according to social media accounts belonging to the anti-IS operation.

Formed under a UN-backed power-sharing deal agreed by some Libyan lawmakers in December, the GNA has been working to assert its authority but has yet to receive the official endorsement of the country’s recognised parliament.

The pro-GNA forces are mostly made up of militias from western cities, notably Misrata, and the guards of oil installations that IS has repeatedly tried to seize.

The forces said on Thursday they expected to announce the liberation of Sirte in “two or three days,” after thrusting into the city centre.

“We’re encouraged by the progress they’re making,” said US special envoy Brett McGurk.

“Once you have a credible force on the ground that moves against them [IS], there is a chance that they could crack pretty quickly.”

GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj called Friday on “all military forces to unite in the face of our common enemy… and to join the victorious forces.”

But Ahmed al-Mesmari, a spokesman for forces loyal to a rival government based in the country’s far east, described the GNA forces as “illegitimate militias, loyal to an illegitimate government.”

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