Libyan forces battling to oust Islamic State from Sirte say they have made significant advances, gaining control of a large convention centre previously used as a base by the jihadi group.
“Our forces have complete control of the whole of the Ouagadougou [convention] complex – they even advanced some distance beyond the complex,” said Rida Issa, a spokesman in the forces’ media office. Fighters had also captured Sirte’s hospital and university complex, he said.
If the gains are confirmed, it would mark the biggest advance the forces have made for weeks. They come 10 days after the US began airstrikes over Sirte, which fighters say have aided their advance on militants encircled in the centre of the city.
The capture of the Ouagadougou complex would also be an important symbolic victory. The large domed building is a landmark in Sirte, the home town of the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, whose fall in an uprising in 2011 precipitated years of factional anarchy. The building was used for meetings and religious instruction by Isis after it took control of the city last year.
Forces aligned with Libya’s UN-backed government launched their campaign for Sirte in May. Their advance slowed as they approached the centre of the city, and the forces, led by brigades from the city of Misrata, have suffered heavy casualties from Isis landmines and snipers.
Clashes have been sporadic, with heavier fighting interspersed with lulls that last for several days.
Since 1 August, US drones and fighter jets have carried out 29 strikes, including targeting several Isis positions on Monday and a gun-mounted pickup truck on Tuesday, according to statements by US Africa Command. Libyan fighter jets have also been flying regular missions over Sirte.
The UN-backed government arrived in Tripoli in March but has struggled to impose its authority and faces continuing resistance from armed factions that control eastern Libya.