Forces loyal to Libya's unity government bombarded the Islamic State group in Sirte with heavy artillery Friday as part of a push to recapture the jihadist bastion within days.
The loss of Sirte, the hometown of ousted dictator Moamer Kadhafi, would be a major blow to the jihadists at a time when they are under mounting pressure in Syria and Iraq.
Forces aligned with the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) said they had pounded IS with "heavy artillery fire" targeting their positions around the sprawling Ouagadougou conference centre.
The Kadhafi-era complex, which once hosted pan-African summits, now houses an IS command centre.
"The countdown has begun," the GNA forces said on Twitter.
They said they had freed an unspecified number of civilians who had been held by IS in Sirte, without giving details.
GNA forces are mostly made up of militias from western cities, including Misrata, that have sided with the GNA and the guards of oil installations that IS has repeatedly tried to seize.
Friday's bombardment came a day after a spokesman for the GNA forces said they had pushed into the centre of Sirte, which IS has held since June 2015, and predicted that it could fall within days.
"The operation will not last much longer. I think we'll be able to announce the liberation of Sirte in two or three days," said Mohamad Ghassri.
The United States welcomed the thrust into Sirte.
President Barack Obama's special envoy to the international coalition battling IS, Brett McGurk, tweeted that GNA forces were making "rapid advances" against the jihadists.
A US Defense Department spokesman confirmed GNA forces were "making progress".
"We certainly are encouraged by the progress we see those government forces making," Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said.
But analysts warned that recapturing Sirte would not spell the end of the jihadists in Libya.
Many challenges ahead
"Soon IS will be driven out of Sirte. However, that definitely would not be the end of the group in Libya," said Mohamed Eljarh of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
"If ISIS (IS) is defeated in Sirte, we expect an increase in attacks against oil installations to the south and also in the cities of Misrata and Tripoli."
Mattia Toaldo, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, also advised caution.
He said that the IS presence in Libya would continue to be felt even if Sirte falls, warning that the jihadists could carry out fresh attacks in the country namely against Tripoli and the western city of Misrata.
Since launching the offensive against IS in mid-May, GNA forces have taken the town of Abu Grein on a key crossroads south of Misrata as well as the power plant of Sirte and three barracks 20 kilometres from the city centre.
On Thursday warplanes bombed jihadist positions in Sirte and the navy said it was in control of the waters off the city, located 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of Tripoli.
They also announced the capture of the town of Harawa, east of Sirte.
IS has fed on the political and military divisions that have plagued Libya since the 2011 uprising.
Foreign intelligence services estimate IS has 5,000 fighters in Libya but its strength inside Sirte and the number of civilians living in the city are unavailable.
European nations fear that the jihadists could use Sirte as a staging post for attacks on their soil.
Analysts have also expressed concern over what could happen after the fall of Sirte, as divisions continue to plague oil-rich Libya.
"What will happen to all the forces mobilised against IS," asked Eljarah.
"And Haftar's forces? There is a risk that they turn against each other," he said.
He was referring to controversial General Khalifa Haftar, an opponent of the GNA who heads forces loyal to a rival government backed by the internationally recognised parliament now based in the country's far east.
Date created : 2016-06-10