The Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) has “fully closed” the entrances to its Libyan stronghold in Sirte and is keeping residents there “to use as human shields” in anticipation of a Libyan army offensive to liberate the port city.
Despite objections from the United Nations-backed unity government, the Libyan army, under the leadership of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, has ordered an attack on Sirte, a port city only a few hundred miles across the Mediterranean Sea from the shores of Europe.
The army from eastern Libya, which some observers believe is fractured, began attacking ISIS positions in Sirte, considered the jihadist group’s de-facto capital in North Africa.
“The attack goes against an ultimatum issued by the national unity government under Fayez Al-Sarraj to halt all military operations in the region,” reports ANSA, adding:
Prime Minister-Designate Sarraj had previously urged Haftar to suspend preparations for an attack on Sirte prior to the formation of a unified body coordinating Misrata militias as well, in order to prevent possible clashes between the rival Libyan factions.
There are signs that armed groups from western Libya are also preparing for an advance on Sirte.
“Such operations have repeatedly been announced in recent months without taking place,” Reuters notes, however.
Some analysts believe ISIS could use Sirte as a platform for terrorist attacks in Europe.
Reuters points out:
Islamic State has held Sirte since 2015, taking advantage of a conflict between loose alliances of armed brigades allied to Libya’s rival governments to seize a 250-km (155-mile) strip of coastline around the central Mediterranean city, which lies between the eastern and western power bases.
Al-Arabiya reports that the jihadist group has shut down the entrances to Sirte in an effort to keep all residents in.
“At the humanitarian level, displaced people said that elements of the organization closed some entrances of the city and prevented its people from leaving to use them as human shields when the battle of the liberation of Sirte will start,” reveals the news cast.
“Some families that were late in exiting in the direction of Misrata or Tripoli in the west, were waiting for their children’s completion of the final exams, while other families got stuck,” it adds.
Al-Arabiya indicates that ISIS in Sirte is in a “state of confusion.”
That “pushed” the jihadist group to “carry out random executions in Sirte,” charging the victims with collaborating withe pro-government elements.
The unity government has called on armed groups to hold off on any offensive against ISIS in Sirte until a unified military command is formed.
Western states are hoping the unity government, which arrived in Tripoli last month, will be able to make Libya’s armed factions work together against the ultra-hardline militant group, and have said they are ready to provide training for Libyan forces if requested by the unity government.
The U.S. has conducted a limited number of airstrikes against ISIS in Libya. U.S. military officials recently estimated that while the strength of ISIS is diminishing in Iraq and Syria, the number of fighters in Libya has more than doubled to up to 6,000.
Nevertheless, the jihadist group is suffering from financial problems in Sirte.
“The Islamic State militant group (ISIS) has taken to selling chickens and eggs in the streets of its de-facto North African capital as its cash reserves continue to be damaged by instability in Libya and the U.S.-led coalition campaign against the group in Iraq and Syria,” reports Newsweek.
On Thursday, ISIS launched attacks between Sirte and Misrata, killing five people, reports Reuters.
“The jihadist group said it had taken control of several villages in the area following attacks on checkpoints, though reports that local security forces had retreated could not immediately be confirmed,” according to the report.