ISIL fighters retreat from main bastion in Libya, ‘shaving beards’ as they go
BENGHAZI // ISIL fighters were retreating from their main bastion in Libya on Thursday, as militiamen allied to a UN-brokered unity government pushed into the central city of Sirte.
Some extremists reportedly shaved off their beards to escape while the pro-government fighters, mostly from the western Libyan city of Misurata, pushed into the city centre in their tanks and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. At a main roundabout, militiamen dismantled the metal frame of what some Sirte residents had dubbed the “stage of horror” – a podium used by ISIL for public beheadings and extrajudicial killings.
Videos circulated on social media show triumphant militiamen flashing victory signs and chanting “Allahu Akbar” as they drove around Sirte.
The capture of the city capped a month-long offensive by the Libyan militiamen to take the ISIL stronghold. It was the only major ISIL-held city outside Syria and Iraq, and was seen as a possible fallback option for the capital of the extremist group’s self-styled caliphate. ISIL is currently struggling to fend off advances on a number of fronts, including in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and the northern Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa.
In Libya, militiamen from the western city of Misurata have been the main fighting force for the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) that was installed in Tripoli earlier this year. For nearly four weeks, the militiamen have been advancing from the west and south against ISIL. The extremist group dispatched suicide bombers against the militiamen, who lost dozens of fighters last month. On Wednesday, the militias pushed deeper into Sirte, which lies in the central part of Libya’s Mediterranean coastline. On Thursday, they reached the city’s key Zafarana roundabout, where they dismantled the stage on which ISIL killed at least 49 people, according to Human Rights Watch.
Misurata-based media official Ahmed Hadiya said his forces found sinks full of shaved-off beards and long hair inside a Sirte school taken from ISIL, suggesting that the militants tried to get rid of their trademark looks before fleeing.
Left behind were also militant cell phones, ISIL paraphernalia and leaflets pledging allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, according to a Misuratan who took photos of the items.
A militia commander, Ali bin Gharbiya, claimed in an audio message posted on Facebook that the victory in Sirte was quick. “Except for a little bit of anti-aircraft fire, they (ISIL) immediately withdrew,” he said.
The government forces’ next goal was the Ouagadougou gigantic convention centre, another city landmark, Mr Hadiya said.
The centre was the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s one-time favourite conference hall where he hosted lavish African and Arab summits. ISIL had turned it into a headquarters and held graduation ceremonies there for those who completed courses organised by the group.
“The Daesh are cornered inside and around the centre,” Mr Hadiya said. “Our forces are preparing ... to seize the centre.”
ISIL militants unexpectedly showed little resistance once the militiamen pushed into their bastion. This could signal either a tactical retreat or a reflection of the small number of extremists remaining inside the city – Western officials had earlier estimated ISIL’s strength in Sirte to be over 5,000 men.
ISIL and other extremists have exploited the chaos that followed the 2011 overthrow of Qaddafi in a Nato-backed uprising, establishing strongholds just across the Mediterranean Sea from Europe. Libya meanwhile sunk deeper into turmoil, with the country’s feuding factions splitting it into two parliaments and rival governments.
This year, Western nations have thrown their support behind the GNA in hopes of ending the rivalry between authorities based in the capital, Tripoli, and in the country’s far east.
The GNA, in the absence of an organised and unified army, has depended on the Misurata militias, among the country’s most powerful.
* Associated Press