US warplanes have attacked Islamic State forces in Libya, the Pentagon has announced, at the start of what US officials say will be a sustained offensive against the militant group outside Iraq and Syria.
Isis positions in the strategic port city of Sirte were hit by manned aircraft and drones on Monday, after a request from the UN-backed unity government, the Pentagon said.
Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said “additional US strikes” against the group in Sirte were to come. Their goal, Cook said, will be to enable local US allies make a “decisive, strategic advance” on Sirte, which for the past eight weeks has been the site of fierce urban fighting between forces loyal to the unity government and entrenched Isis fighters.
Cook said the attacks – which included “precision strikes” against an Islamic State tank and other vehicles – were launched after requests from the Tripoli government, which nominated the targets.
Fayez Serraj, the prime minister of the UN-backed government in Tripoli, said in a televised statement that the airstrikes caused “severe losses to enemy ranks”. No US ground forces will be deployed, he said.
“The presidency council, as the general army commander, has made a request for direct US support to carry out specific airstrikes,” Serraj said. “The first strikes started today in positions in Sirte, causing major casualties.”
Serraj said that the strikes will not go beyond Sirte and its surroundings, adding: “This is the time for the international community to live up to its promises to the Libyan people.”
The latest airstrikes are not the first time the US has targeted Isis in Libya – US warplanes attacked an Isis training camp in Sabratha in February and a senior Isis figure in November – but that did not herald a sustained operation. The US has also launched strikes and raids against al-Qaida targets in the country since 2011, when Nato conducted an air war against dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Gaddafi’s death, at the hands of local revolutionaries, left a vacuum that Isis has sought to fill, something Barack Obama has called the “worst mistake” of his presidency.
US special operations forces have been deployed in Libya since December, in an attempt to seek local “partners” in the fight against Isis, and Libyan commanders say that American and British special forces are advising their forces on the ground.
Cook said US forces are not participating on the ground in the current fight in Sirte, but did not say that US ground forces have left Libya entirely.
The US-backed forces have had successes against Isis in recent months, taking Sirte’s port away from the radical jihadist group. US and British forces provided logistics and intelligence support for the operation.
But local forces have struggled to crush the remaining Isis fighters who have established defensive positions in the city. The US estimates Isis has fewer than 1,000 fighters in the city, representing the bulk of its strength in Libya.
The battle against Isis has been led by militias from Misrata, Libya’s third city, which are aligned to the new government. The offensive began in early June, with sweeping gains that crushed Isis’s self-declared caliphate that had stretched 125 miles along Libya’s coast.
But the fight for Sirte itself has proved a bloody affair, with the Misrata militia suffering more than 300 dead and 1,300 wounded in a grim attritional struggle.
Isis fighters holed up in the city have exacted a steady toll on the pro-government militias with snipers and suicide carbombs attacking Misratan lines. Isis units have built heavily defended positions amid homes and offices, posing problems for Misratan units who lack artillery and tanks
“It has been very difficult to dislodge them. This is the kind of international help that is needed,” said Dr Guma El-Gamaty of Libya Dialogue, the Tripoli government’s supervising authority.
El-Gamaty added: “The fight against Isis in Libya is not just a Libyan problem, it’s an international problem.”
It is unclear how many civilians remain in Sirte. Most of the population have fled since Isis first took over the city last year, but a small portion have stayed.
Senior US officers have indicated they seek a lasting victory against Isis in Libya.
Marine general Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said in a January appearance with France’s chief officer that they sought “decisive military action” and warned of the need for “a way ahead” to defeat Isis’s Libyan rise.
Cook said the current operation would continue as long as the unity government requests support.
The UK has confirmed reconnaissance flights are providing intelligence over the battlefield, but when asked about the prospect of UK planes joining in the airstrikes, a British ministry of defence spokesman said: “There is no UK involvement and no plans at present to do anything similar.”
The UK said its contribution to an Italian-led force that has been mooted to support Libya’s government of national accord would be primarily to help with training, with about a third engaged in force protection.
Cook cited the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) as legal authorization for the strike. That open-ended authorization long predates the existence of the Islamic State, and was originally drawn up to allow attacks on al-Qaida.
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