SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - At least 34 Libyan fighters were killed and more than 180 wounded on Sunday as they closed in on the last Islamic State militant holdouts in the coastal city of Sirte, according to a field hospital.
Forces aligned with Libya’s U.N.-backed government, supported since Aug. 1 by U.S. air strikes, have pushed militants back into a small residential area in central Sirte in a three-month-old campaign. Heavy fighting resumed on Sunday after a one-week lull.
The Libyan brigades, mostly from the city of Misrata, say they are close to victory in Sirte, but they have struggled to defend themselves from suicide bombings, sniper fire and landmines.
On Sunday several brigades stationed close to Sirte’s seafront advanced several hundred metres eastwards through Sirte’s neighbourhood Number One, while other fighters overran Islamic State positions in street-to-street fighting to the south.
“Now we are about to take neighbourhood Number One and we will besiege them in Neighbourhood Three. We are still waiting for the eastern section to advance further,” said Rafaat Yahiay. Injured earlier in the campaign, he was using his crutch to signal to fellow fighters when to open fire.
Fighters used tanks, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns to try to blast through buildings used by Islamic State snipers. Many brigade members have only improvised weapons and fight in shorts and sandals.
The Misrata-led brigades said there had been five attempted car bombings on Sunday in a “desperate attempt to disrupt the advance”, though at least one of the bombs had been destroyed before it could reach its target.
The front lines in Sirte were quieter earlier this week as government-led forces said they were giving time to the wives and children of Islamic State fighters to leave the battle zone.
Almost all the city’s estimated 80,000 residents left after Islamic State took full control of the city last year, turning it into its regional stronghold and expanding its presence along about 250 km (150 miles) of coastline.
The United States has carried out dozens of air strikes against Islamic State positions and vehicles in Sirte. This week the U.S. Africa Command said Marine AH-1W SuperCobra helicopters were being used in the operation, alongside jets and drones.
Suleman Ashaimi, a commander on the western front line, said there had been strikes overnight, ahead of the Libyan forces’ advance.
“Last night our friends did a good job,” he said. “They are really precise, they are very good.”
Small teams of Western special forces have been on the ground in Sirte and Misrata, providing intelligence, logistical and strategic support.
Libyan commanders say some Islamic State militants probably escaped around the start of the campaign to recapture Sirte in May.
Suicide bombings last week behind the front lines, in the outskirts of Sirte, have fuelled fears of a continuing militant presence outside the city.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami; editing by Patrick Markey and Andrew Roche