x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 December 2017

Rebuilt once, Qaddafi’s Libyan hometown of Sirte lies in ruins again

US aircraft have hit ISIL targets in Sirte with more than 30 strikes as pro-government forces push into its last militant-held districts

A fighter of Libyan forces allied with the UN-backed government walks past a ruined house in Cambo area which they captured from ISIL militants on October 16, 2016, in Sirte, Libya. Ismail Zitouny/Reuters
A fighter of Libyan forces allied with the UN-backed government walks past a ruined house in Cambo area which they captured from ISIL militants on October 16, 2016, in Sirte, Libya. Ismail Zitouny/Reuters

SIRTE // ISIL’s beleaguered Libyan stronghold of Sirte has been devastated by months of fighting, the second time in five years it has been wrecked.

Over three days, US aircraft have hit ISIL targets in Sirte with more than 30 strikes as pro-government forces push into its last militant-held districts, the US military said on Monday.

Libyan forces are close to ending a six-month campaign to liberate the city from ISIL, which took over the city more than a year after taking advantage of factional infighting that emerged after the fall of strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.

Tanks roar through rubble-strewn streets while explosions and gunfire rock gutted buildings.

Most of the 120,000 residents have fled, either in fear of the extremists or forced out by pro-government forces who have been battling since May to oust ISIL from what was once its north African headquarters.

Forces mostly from nearby Misurata city are pushing ahead street by street, facing snipers and suicide bombers. They are helped by US air strikes since August and coordination with small teams of western special forces on the ground. Pro-government forces are gradually tightening the noose on the few remaining ISIL fighters holed up in the east.

Residents rebuilt Sirte after the 2011 uprising, but this year’s fighting has once again left the coastal town in ruins again.

Apart from fighters, Sirte is now a ghost town with no electricity or phone coverage within a hundred kilometres.

ISIL took over Sirte in June 2015, flying their black flags above public buildings and imprisoning, crucifying or beheading dozens of people.

Extremists roamed the streets in pickup lorries to check that residents were praying at the correct times and that women did not leave home without a male minder.

Forces allied with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNA) launched an offensive in May to oust ISIL from the city and surrounding areas.

They entered Sirte itself on June 9, and the militants hit back with suicide bombings and snipers.

More than 550 GNA fighters have been killed and 3,000 wounded in the assault.

Shop fronts throughout town still bear the black stamp of the “Office of General Services”, ISIL’s tax authority.

On those walls that are still standing, slogans glorifying ISIL have been erased and replaced with “Bye bye Daesh”.

Forces loyal to Libya’s unity government suspect that the extremists had local help when they seized the town.

The loyalist forces expelled residents and were preventing them from returning to “liberated” areas, said Hadi, the commander of a group of fighters from Tripoli.

“We do not want to take risks by leaving a potential enemy behind our backs,” he said, adding that he had come to fight the extremists and hoped “to die a martyr”.

While most members of the pro-government forces are from Misurata half way between Tripoli and Sirte, fighters have come from across Libya, he said.

For some of the GNA-allied fighters battling ISIL, the destruction of Sirte is justice.

“When we see the number of martyrs and wounded when we liberated Gaddafi’s hometown in 2011 and again today, we can say the residents of Sirte deserved what they got,” said Mohammed, a fighter from Misurata.

Another fighter agreed. “It’s war,” he said. “We can’t do anything about it, and they deserve what’s happening to them.”

It was in Sirte that Gaddafi fought his last battle before being killed on October 20, 2011 as he tried to flee.

Since then, the town has been like a “sheep among the wolves”, said a local official, who did not want to give his name because he feared for his safety.

He and his family fled Sirte a few months ago while it was still under full ISIL control.

“They want to punish us again, accusing us of welcoming Daesh with open arms, while in fact we were abandoned to our fate,” he said.

* Agence France-Presse and Reuters