BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — Libyan forces loyal to a U.N.-brokered government have advanced deep inside the coastal city of Sirte, the main stronghold of the Islamic State group's local affiliate, officials said Wednesday.
Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Ghasri told The Associated Press that forces have seized a key bridge inside the city where the extremists used to hang the bodies of their enemies, and are only five kilometers (three miles) from the city center and Zafrana square, where IS killed prisoners convicted by its self-styled Islamic courts.
Sirte is the only IS-held city outside Syria and Iraq, and was seen as a possible fallback option for the capital of its self-styled caliphate. The extremists are currently struggling to fend off advances on a number of fronts, including in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and the northern Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa.
Al-Ghasri said the fighting on Wednesday killed five of his fighters and wounded another 25.
Another official said the forces, mainly militiamen from the nearby city of Misrata, had encountered little resistance in recent days aside from roadside bombs. Warplanes have supported the advance, bombing IS positions and destroying a car bomb the extremists had prepared to use against the advancing forces.
The official said the Libyan forces are now closing in on the IS group's headquarters in the Ouagadougou convention center, one of the city's main landmarks. They are also making their way toward the port. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the press.
IS and other extremists have exploited the chaos that followed the 2011 overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in a NATO-backed uprising, establishing strongholds just across the Mediterranean Sea from Europe.
Western nations have thrown their support behind the U.N.-backed government in hopes of ending the rivalry between authorities based in the capital, Tripoli, and in the country's far east. They hope the government can unify the Libya's various militias in order to expel the extremists.
In March the UN-designated Prime Minister Fayez Serraj entered Tripoli, but since then he has faced resistance from different factions across the country, including the eastern-based parliament, which has not yet endorsed his government.