Forces loyal to Libya’s unity government in front of the Ouagadougou conference centre in Sirte after they captured it from Daesh. Image Credit: AFP

Cairo: Pro-government Libyan militias backed by US air power said on Wednesday that they had seized Daesh’s last stronghold in the country, in the seaside city of Sirte.

If confirmed, the capture would be a severe blow to the militant organisation’s expansion into North Africa, and extend the string of territorial retreats it has suffered this year in Syria and Iraq.

Militia announcements quoted by Libyan news agencies and television outlets said the militia fighters were still hunting remnants of Daesh forces hiding in residential neighbourhoods in Sirte.

But the militias claimed to have taken the heavily fortified Ouagadougou Centre, which Daesh had used as its headquarters.

In a statement broadcast on Misrata TV, a station based in the nearby city of Misrata, Mohammad Al Ghassri, a spokesman for the attacking militia force, said that the Ouagadougou Centre and a nearby hospital had been captured.

Al Ahrar TV, a Libyan broadcaster, posted on its Twitter account photos of what appeared to be triumphal fighters outside the centre posing with their flag.

The centre was heavily fortified, with underground bunkers and fortifications dating from the era of Muammar Gaddafi, the longtime leader of Libya overthrown nearly five years ago.

A Libyan official said Thursday that around 70 per cent of the city had been liberated.

Mokhtar Khalifa, the Sirte mayor, told The Associated Press that the city’s southern and western sections are under control of the Libyan fighters loyal to the UN-brokered government in Tripoli, the country’s capital.

“Sirte is 70 percent free, it will soon be completely free,” Khalifa said.

“We are in the middle of the decisive phase in the battle against Daesh,” said Reda Eissa, a media official. Daesh’s loss of Sirte would signify the culmination of a summer-long offensive by militias from Misrata, under the auspices of the Government of National Accord, the Tripoli-based authority backed by the United Nations.

It comes against the backdrop of other military setbacks for Daesh, which once held wide areas of Syria and Iraq but has been forced to relinquish territory in recent months. Iraqi forces retook control of the city of Fallujah from Daesh in June. The Syrian army, backed by Russia, expelled Daesh from the ancient city of Palmyra in March. Syrian insurgents and Kurdish militias, including some US-backed factions, have been squeezing Daesh positions in northeast Syria near Raqqa, the organisation’s headquarters.

Over the last 10 days, the militias fighting Daesh in Libya have been supported by heavy US airstrikes, using drones based in Jordan. The US Africa Command has reported 28 airstrikes from the beginning of that campaign, August 1, to Monday.

Daesh, also known as Isis or Isil, had held Sirte for the past year. Its occupation of the city represented the organisation’s most brazen expansion from its power bases in Iraq and Syria.

While the US military did not specify exactly where its airstrikes had been aimed, it is believed that they were concentrated in and around Sirte. The militias’ offensive against Daesh had reduced the area they controlled from 150 miles of coastline to the area immediately around the city.

The birthplace of Gaddafi, Sirte is also where the Libyan dictator was killed by anti-government militia fighters in 2011.

Officials at the Pentagon said they could not confirm that Daesh’s headquarters in Sirte had fallen, but one senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity under military rules, said he had no reports suggesting the militia claims were untrue.

Libya’s hodgepodge of militias, answering to three different factions claiming to control the country, have often been prone to exaggerated claims.

Pro-militia factions also reported that a Libyan air force warplane had been shot down by Daesh fighters in Sirte on Wednesday.

The territory seized by Daesh in Libya had been considered the most important of the group’s overseas wilayats, or provinces.

As early as October 2014, extremists in the Libyan city of Darnah pledged allegiance to Daesh and, a month later, the Daesh leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, named Libya as one of the group’s official provinces.

That province was eventually centred in Sirte, which became the axis of Daesh’s power in Libya.

The organisation sought to give its Libya province the trappings of a state, modelled after the one it was trying to run in Iraq and Syria. Early on, senior Daesh members arrived by boat to help administer the territory, creating a degree of connective tissue that has mostly been lacking in other areas the group has seized.

Daesh set up offices mirroring those in Syria, including a media office, which put out content tailored to a Libyan audience, according to Aymenn Jawad Al Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.

The production techniques used in execution videos produced in Libya were so similar to ones emerging from Syria that some experts theorised that Daesh must have dispatched a cameraman from Syria to Libya to achieve that congruence.

The latest developments in Sirte came as the Government of National Accord has been struggling with other resilient threats to Libya’s frail stability. Fears have risen that militias in eastern Libya that have refused to recognise the government could attack the Zueitina oil export terminal, where Libya petroleum officials hope to resume disrupted shipments.

The governments of France, Britain, Spain, Germany and the United States issued a statement on Wednesday expressing “concern at reports of increasing tension” near Zueitina and supporting the government’s efforts to “resolve the disruptions to Libya’s energy exports”.

-With inputs from AP