US warplanes Monday carried out air strikes on positions of the Islamic State group in the Libyan city of Sirte for the first time, the country’s unity government head announced.
“The first American airstrikes on precise positions of the Daesh (IS) organization were carried out today, causing heavy losses… in Sirte,” Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj said in a televised speech.
In Washington, the Pentagon said the raids were launched in response to a request from the unity government.
“At the request of the Libyan Government of National Accord, the United States military conducted precision air strikes against ISIL targets in Sirte, Libya, to support GNA-affiliated forces seeking to defeat ISIL in its primary stronghold in Libya,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said, using another name for IS.
The US strikes in Sirte “will continue,” Cook added without elaborating.
President Barack Obama authorized the bombings following recommendations from top Pentagon officials, and the strikes are “consistent with our approach to combating ISIL by working with capable and motivated local forces,” Cook added.
“The US stands with the international community in supporting the GNA as it strives to restore stability and security to Libya,” he said.
The Tripoli-based GNA launched an operation in May to retake the IS bastion of Sirte, the hometown of slain dictator Muammar Gaddafi which the jihadists have controlled since June 2015.
Sarraj stressed that the US strikes were carried out in coordination with the military command center of pro-GNA forces, and that no foreign troops would be deployed in Libya.
“This has allowed our forces on the ground to take control of strategic positions,” he said, adding that the American involvement would be “limited in time and will not go beyond Sirte and its suburbs.”
“We asked for this support from the international community, notably the United States, but we want to point out that there will be no foreign presence on Libyan soil.”
The fall of Sirte, 450 kilometers (280 miles) east of Tripoli, would be a major blow to IS, which has also faced a series of setbacks in Syria and Iraq.
The battle for Sirte has killed around 280 pro-government fighters and wounded more than 1,500, according to medical sources at the unity forces’ command center.
The GNA advance slowed after an unexpectedly rapid initial breakthrough into the Mediterranean city on June 9.
The coastal city is considered one of IS’s most important rear bases outside of Syria and Iraq.
There are between 2,000 and 5,000 IS fighters from Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Mali, Morocco and Mauritania deployed in Sirte, Tripoli and Derna, according to a report which UN chief Ban Ki-moon submitted to the Security Council last month.
The pro-GNA forces are mostly made up of militias from western Libya established during the 2011 revolt that overthrew Gaddafi.
A militia set up to guard the country’s main oil facilities has also been advancing on IS.
The GNA was the result of a UN-brokered power-sharing agreement struck in December, but it has yet to be endorsed by Libya’s elected parliament based in the country’s far east.