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 of Sirte in what U.S. officials described as the start of a sustained campaign against the extremist group in the city.
“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. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the strikes did not have “an end point at this particular moment in time”.
Forces allied with Seraj have been battling Islamic State in Sirte – the home town of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi – since May.
The militants seized the Mediterranean coastal city last year, making it their most important base outside Syria and Iraq. But they are now besieged in a few square kilometers of the center, where they hold strategic sites, including the Ouagadougou conference hall, the central hospital and the university.
Seraj said the Presidential Council of his Government of National Accord, or 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).”
The air strikes on Monday – which were authorized by U.S. President Barack Obama – hit an Islamic State tank and two vehicles that posed a threat to forces aligned with Libya’s GNA, Cook said.
In the future, each individual strike will be coordinated with the GNA and needs the approval of the commander of U.S. forces in Africa, Cook added.
This was the third U.S. air strike against Islamic State militants in Libya. But U.S. officials said this one marked the start of a sustained air campaign rather than another isolated strike.
The last acknowledged U.S. air strikes in Libya were on an Islamic State training camp in the western city of Sabratha in February.
Although it does not include the use of ground troops beyond small special forces squads rotating in and out of Libya and drones collecting intelligence, the air campaign opens a new front in the war against IS and what American officials consider its most dangerous component outside Syria and Iraq.
Obama authorized the strikes after a recommendation by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Washington took part in air strikes in 2011 to enforce a no-fly zone in Libya which helped topple Gaddafi. The country has struggled since then and Obama said in an interview with The Atlantic magazine in April that the intervention “didn’t work”.
“I want to assure you that these operations are limited to a specific timetable and do not exceed Sirte and its suburbs,” Seraj said, adding that international support on the ground would be limited to technical and logistical help.
“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,” said Cook, the Pentagon spokesman.
The White House said U.S. assistance to Libya would be limited to air strikes and information sharing. (Courtesy Reuters)