Sirte, Libya – U.S. planes bombed Islamic State targets in Libya on Monday, responding to the U.N.-backed government’s request to help push the militants from their former stronghold in the city of Sirte.
“The first air strikes were carried out at specific locations in Sirte today causing severe losses to enemy ranks,” Prime Minster Fayez Seraj said on state TV.
Forces allied with Seraj have been battling Islamic State in Sirte – the home town of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi – since May.
The group seized the Mediterranean coastal city last year, making it its most important base outside Syria and Iraq, but its militants are now besieged in a few square kilometres of the centre where they hold strategic sites including the Ouagadougou conference hall, the central hospital and the university.
The last acknowledged U.S. air strikes in Libya were on an Islamic State training camp in the western city of Sabratha in February.
Seraj said the Presidential Council of his Government of National Accord (GNA), had decided to “activate” its participation in the international coalition against Islamic State and “request the United States to carry out targeted air strikes on Daesh (Islamic State).”
“I want to assure you that these operations are limited to a specific timetable and do not exceed Sirte and its suburbs,” he said, adding that international support on the ground would be limited to technical and logistical help.
U.S. President Barack Obama authorised the air strikes, the White House said.
“GNA-aligned forces have had success in recapturing territory from ISIL (Islamic State) thus far around Sirte, and additional U.S. strikes will continue to target ISIL in Sirte in order to enable the GNA to make a decisive, strategic advance,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said.
Brigades mainly composed of militia from the western city of Misrata advanced on Sirte in May, but their progress was slowed in recent weeks by snipers, mines and booby-traps.
Those forces have complained that assistance from the government in Tripoli and external powers was slow to materialise. At least 350 of their fighters have been killed and more than 1,500 wounded in the campaign.
Libyan fighter jets have frequently bombed Sirte, but they lack the weapons and technology to make precision strikes.