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US airstrikes in Libya slow as targets shrink

An AV-8B Harrier from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit lands on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp in the Mediterranean Sea, Sept. 14, 2016. The 22nd MEU, embarked on Wasp, is conducting precision airstrikes in support of the Libyan Government of National Accord-aligned forces against Islamic State targets in Sirte, Libya, as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning.

RAWAD MADANAT/U.S. NAVY

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 22, 2016

The pace of U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State group fighters in Libya slowed in September as the number of insurgents holed up in a hard-to-target section of the coastal city of Sirte shrinks.

So far this month, U.S. forces have conducted 50 airstrikes against Islamic State targets, compared with 108 in August, according to a tally of U.S. Africa Command-led strikes.

Since August, U.S. warplanes have been assisting forces aligned with the Libyan government in their offensive in Sirte.

“Sirte is a major city, and the areas where the last few Daesh fighters remain can be considered urban terrain that does not have a lot of open space,” said Charles Prichard, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, using an alternative name for the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL and ISIS.

After nearly two months of attacks, about 200 remaining militants are believed to be tucked away in the city.

On Aug. 1, AFRICOM began its mission in Libya — Operation Odyssey Lighting — which has involved airstrikes by jets operating from the USS Wasp positioned off the Libyan coast, together with occasional assaults from Marine attack helicopters.

At the time, Libyan ground forces were involved in a wide-ranging fight in Sirte, where the Islamic State occupied a sizable portion of territory. Shortly before U.S. operations, the military estimated that several thousand militants were positioned in the city, a burgeoning stronghold for the Islamic State in Libya.

The U.S. mission now underway in Sirte came at the request of the Libyan government, which sought support for its forces on the ground. The operation is limited to the area in and directly around Sirte.

“With the support of the U.S. airstrikes, (forces aligned with the Government of National Accord) have done the hard work on the ground to regain a substantial amount of the city territory that was under ISIL control and reduce the number of ISIL fighters to just a few hundred,” Prichard said.

Since the start of the campaign by Libyan forces, many Islamic State members have fled Sirte, “looking to hide among the population, relocate to other Libyan towns or attempting to leave Libya altogether,” AFRICOM said.

After the Moammar Gadhafi was toppled in 2011, Libya descended into chaos, with rival militias battling for territory and a fragile national government struggling to assert itself and achieve unity. During the past year, the Islamic State has sought to make inroads, taking advantage of the anarchy.

For months, U.S. officials had debated taking a stronger stance in Libya but held back, citing a lack of a stable government to work with. More recently, however, U.S. officials have expressed hope that Libya’s fragile Government of National Accord was showing signs of progress, which military officials have said was a prerequisite for action.

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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