SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) – Behind the front lines in the Libyan city of Sirte, ageing tanks crunch through the debris of battle to new positions and resting fighters drink sweetened coffee waiting for orders to advance.
Ahead, Islamic state militants besieged in a single residential neighborhood and targeted by U.S. air strikes deploy mines, snipers and suicide bombers to defend their shrinking area.
Islamic State exploited Libya’s divisions to seize Sirte and rule it largely undisturbed for more than a year. But after a bloody campaign, brigades from the nearby city of Misrata stand poised to win back what became the militant group’s most important base outside the Middle East.
The loss of Sirte would compound Islamic State setbacks suffered in Syria and Iraq. But the Sirte campaign has been halting, with onslaughts followed by long pauses as forces regroup and hospitals struggle to clear the wounded.
The brigades operate under command centers in Sirte and Misrata, aligned to a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, but on the ground, formations are fluid, fighters are ill-equipped, and progress has been costly.
Ismail Shukri, head of military intelligence in Misrata, said brigades recovered copies of instructions for Islamic State fighters to stage tactical withdrawals before launching car bombs.
“When our forces gather, Daesh (Islamic State) fighters stage a retreat in order to send a car bomb. When our fighters advance on foot they have been an easy target,” he said. “Daesh have relied on mines, snipers and shelling, but they never use defensive lines to directly engage.”
On Sunday, 35 brigade fighters were killed as forces moved forward several hundred meters among emptied residential blocks in Sirte’s neighborhood Number One, near the sea front, and towards the last Islamic State holdouts in Neighborhood Three.
On one street corner, fighters jumped out to fire automatic rifles above their heads alongside