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US bombing mission in Islamic State-controlled Libyan city appears over

U.S. Marines with 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit prepare an AH-1W Super Cobra for flight aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS San Antonio on Nov. 8, 2016. The 22nd MEU is conducting precision air strikes against Islamic State targets in Sirte, Libya, as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning.

RYAN YOUNG/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 7, 2016

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s four-month bombing campaign against Islamic State militants in a coastal city in northern Libya could be over.

Nine Islamic State fighters — believed to be the last in Sirte, Libya — surrendered to militias backing the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis stopped short of declaring victory in the U.S. military’s Operation Odyssey Lighting, the bombing campaign to aid the GNA militias, but said the terrorists no longer control any territory in the city.

“We’re not quite ready to call it,” Davis said. “We’ll wait for [the GNA] to call it, but that appears to be just about wrapped up.”

The Islamic State group captured Sirte in early 2015 to establish a hub for its operations in Libya and plan expansions within Africa. Last summer, the Pentagon said there were about 4,000 Islamic State fighters in Libya, and the majority were in Sirte. That number has since dwindled into the hundreds.

When the U.S. announced Aug. 1 that it would provide airstrikes for the GNA militias in Sirte, Pentagon officials said they expected the operation to take only several weeks. The U.S. has since conducted at least 495 airstrikes there, according to U.S. Africa Command.

Backed by U.S. airpower, GNA militias pinned Islamic State fighters into a single neighborhood — Ghiza Bahriya, in the city’s north along the Mediterranean Sea — within two months. But fighting there remained fierce until Tuesday. More than 700 militia fighters were killed during the campaign, and more than 3,000 were injured, according to a Reuters report.

The GNA had yet to declare full victory in Sirte on Wednesday, as it worked to clear the city of roadside bombs or other improvised explosives, Davis said.

Despite the apparent victory, Davis said the battle against the Islamic State group in Libya is not over. The United States retains the ability to target the group’s fighters in the country in unilateral anti-terrorism airstrikes.

He said that there are still Islamic State fighters in Libya. “They are out in the desert, they are underground, they are blended into the population, and that’s going to continue to be a challenge for the Libyan government in the future,” he said.

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

 

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