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ISIS Fighters Are Still Lurking in Surt, Libyan Officials Warn

Libyan officials were cautious on Thursday about declaring complete victory over the Islamic State in the coastal city of Surt, saying unknown numbers of the militant organization's extremists remained ensconced in three neighborhoods.

While the Islamic State's headquarters in the heavily fortified Ouagadougou Center, as well as an adjacent hospital and other important buildings, were taken on Wednesday by pro-government militiamen backed by American airstrikes, the fight was clearly far from over.

"If we knew how many of them were left there, we would attack tomorrow," said Mohammed al-Ghasari, the spokesman for pro-government militia forces. "So far we have been very professional and careful."

The newly returned mayor of Surt, Mukhtar Khalifa, told The Associated Press that the militiamen, who were from the neighboring city of Misurata and aligned with the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli, controlled 70 percent of the city. The mayor, who had vacated Surt while the Islamic State controlled it, predicted the rest of the city would soon fall as well.

Mr. Ghasari described the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, as cornered in the three city neighborhoods, near the port. "It's about a two square kilometer area — their days are numbered," he said, describing an area of about 500 acres. "This shouldn't take longer than a few weeks. They are completely cut off. We have naval forces in the water, troops on the ground and U.S. airstrikes."

In addition to hunting down the remaining Islamic State militants, the pro-government forces had to contend with hidden bombs and mines. Many Surt residents fled the fighting.

"Only a few families have returned and they went back to areas away from yesterday's clashes," said Reda Eissa, another spokesman for the government-backed campaign. "We advised everyone not to come back just yet. This is still a military zone and ISIS left behind a jungle of land mines."

Mr. Eissa put the number of remaining Islamic State fighters at "several hundred," but he said the government side now controlled 85 percent of the city. As well as taking the Ouagadougou Center, the militias drove Islamic State members from about seven of their strongholds, including the hospital, a university and other places.

Despite their setbacks on Wednesday, Islamic State fighters still shot down a Libyan Air Force fighter plane, killing the pilot, Gen. Mukhtar Fakroun, and his co-pilot, Libyan officials have said.

"Some of the residents who had fled returned to their homes but everyone is still very much terrorized," said Ali Busitta, an official from Misurata working with a humanitarian committee that followed the fighters into Surt to provide aid to civilians. "Our committee tags along with the forces and goes in after an area is cleared to give people juice and try and comfort children. But they say the situation there is scary. Everyone is still rattled."

Although the defeat of the Islamic State in Surt remained incomplete and qualified, the group's presence in Libya has been severely reduced. Islamic State extremists had controlled Surt since last year, and before the government-aligned militias began their offensive early this summer, the organization controlled 150 miles of coastline as well, which it has now lost.

The United States carried out at least 28 airstrikes in the first nine days of August against ISIS targets in Surt, reportedly using drones based in Jordan, which the militias credited as a major element in their victory.

"It would have been very difficult without the Americans," Mr. Busitta said. "We would have seen greater casualties." He said military leaders had told him that the Americans had been providing vital intelligence and surveillance information to the fighters.

Mr. Ghasari put the number of pro-government fighters killed in the Surt campaign at 350, including 16 in the fight for the Ouagadougou Center on Wednesday.

The militias' supporters denied reports that American or British special forces had joined the final push into Surt. "Rumors about the presence of foreign fighters are politicized," Mr. Busitta said. He attributed the rumors to people who want to subvert the United Nations-backed authority in Tripoli, called the Government of National Accord, and "make it look like some kind of puppet government controlled by the West."

France was forced to admit that it had special forces in Libya last month, after Islamic militants shot down a French helicopter near Benghazi, killing all three soldiers on board.

In addition, news organizations in Italy reported Wednesday that several dozen Italian special forces troops were secretly in Libya, in the cities of Benghazi, Misurata and Tripoli, training Libyan forces.

[Source: By Rod Nordland and Nour Youssef, International New York Times, Cairo, 11Aug16]

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