Militant threat hangs over Daesh’s former Libyan stronghold

Men walk past the ruins of a building that was destroyed during clashes between Libyan forces and Daesh in Sirte, Libya. (Reuters)
Updated 10 November 2017
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Militant threat hangs over Daesh’s former Libyan stronghold

SIRTE, Libya: Nearly a year after Daesh was driven from its Libyan stronghold Sirte, residents surveying their wrecked homes feel neglected and vulnerable, still afraid of the militant threat that has waned but not vanished.
Though security in the Mediterranean coastal city has improved, residents remain wary of terrorists in the desert to the south who have stepped up their activity in recent months, setting up checkpoints and carrying out occasional attacks.
In a country where fighting between rival forces frequently flares, Sirte is particularly exposed. It sits in the center of Libya’s coastline on the dividing line between loose alliances aligned with rival governments in Tripoli and the east.
“If the situation continues like this then Daesh will come back, no doubt. There was a reason why they came. People were angry, felt sidelined,” said Ali Miftah, a civil servant and father of five.
“Now we don’t get any support from the government. Look at these ruins. We lost everything.”
Last month, Daesh gunmen staged a suicide attack in Misrata, the coastal city about 230 km to the northwest that led the campaign last year to expel the militants from Sirte.
Daesh also has sleeper cells in other cities along Libya’s western coast, security officials say, and there is concern foreign fighters seeking sanctuary after defeats in Syria and Iraq could once again exploit the country’s security vacuum and link up with Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the desert south.
Divisions among Libya’s many armed factions and uncertainty over how long the forces from Misrata that drove Daesh out will remain in Sirte are compounding residents’ worries.

Airstrikes
In parts of the city, life is slowly returning to normal, though Daesh’s black logos are still visible on some shops and inhabitants struggle with cash shortages and failing public services, as they do elsewhere in Libya.
But in areas that saw the heaviest fighting, families see little hope of rebuilding their homes.
Sirte, the home city of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, was pounded by nearly 500 US airstrikes between August and December last year.
In El-Manar and Giza Bahriya, once among Sirte’s best neighborhoods, houses looking onto the crystal blue Mediterranean are now crumpled piles of twisted metal and concrete, doors blasted from their metal frames.
A damaged primary school said to have once been attended by Qaddafi lies abandoned.
Residents say skeletons among the rubble have been left to be tested to see if they belong to Daesh fighters, or their captives. They are also scared to search their ruined homes because of the unexploded ordnance in the wreckage.
Local forces man checkpoints on the outskirts of Sirte and carry out patrols to the south. But they say they lack the vehicles and weapons to pursue the jihadists, who have retreated into mobile desert camps.
Instead, they rely on the US airstrikes that have killed dozens of suspected militants this year.
“We contain the threat but we cannot chase them in their camps because we lack the right equipment like four-wheel cars needed to drive in the desert,” said Taher Hadeed, an official with the forces securing Sirte.
“It won’t be possible for Daesh to take back the city, but there is a risk of attacks.”
The forces that led the campaign against Daesh in Sirte last year are nominally loyal to the UN-backed government in Tripoli to the west — and Sirte now represents the eastern limit of their control.
Beyond, forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army control oil terminals they seized during the campaign. But for now, the two sides do not coordinate, said Mohamed Al-Ghasri, a military spokesman from Misrata.
Residents and officials in Sirte say the threat cannot be dealt with without proper support from the state and professional security forces.
“They are suffering from a lack of services and we don’t see any real efforts or results on the ground at any level,” said Siddeeq Ismaiel, a municipal official.
An estimated 2,500-3,000 homes need to be built so families forced to live in other parts of Sirte or Misrata can return.
“This will never end if there is no government,” said Hamza Ali, a 34-year-old university employee, standing near his brother’s ruined house.
“It will stop maybe for two, three, four, five, six months, then you will hear an explosion somewhere if there is no official security, police.”


Syrian regime’s killing spree continues in largest opposition holdout

A member of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham group watches as a convoy of busses gets ready to enter the towns of Fuaa and Kefraya to evacuate their residents on Wednesday. (AFP)
Updated 19 July 2018
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Syrian regime’s killing spree continues in largest opposition holdout

  • Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967, and a cease-fire deal was reached in 1974
  • The regime offensive has displaced more than 230,000 people, many of them on the run in the open

BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces determined to retake the largest opposition holdout in the country’s southwest unleashed an intense bombing campaign, killing at least a dozen people and wounding over 100 in a densely populated town, activists and rescuers said on Wednesday.
The aerial bombardment of the town of Nawa came after talks to cede the town failed on Tuesday, triggering the heavy bombardment.
Separately, some 7,000 civilians were expected to be evacuated from two pro-regime villages in northwestern Syria as part of a negotiated deal with insurgents who have besieged them for three years.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said “frenzied” overnight bombing in Nawa and the town’s surroundings continued into Wednesday, with at least 350 missiles launched. The Observatory said at least 12 people were killed as rescuers struggled to get to the casualties.
Khaled Solh, head of the local Syria Civil Defense known as White Helmets, said they have documented 14 people killed while Nawa’s only hospital was bombed and rendered non-operational on late Tuesday. Only one ambulance was able to get to the town and civilians relied on their cars to bring out at least 150 wounded. He said one of the last orthopedists in the town was killed in the strikes.
The regime has stepped up its military offensive on the remaining opposition pockets in the southwestern region, which includes the Daraa and Quneitra provinces that straddle the border with Jordan and the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In recent days, Syrian forces have turned to the last opposition pockets near the frontier with Israel.
Images from across the frontier in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights showed large plumes of smoke rising over the Nawa area, as the bombing continued on Wednesday.
Hundreds of civilians were seen taking cover in shelters along the frontier, apparently seeking safety in the de-militarized zone between the two countries. Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967, and a cease-fire deal was reached in 1974.
In less than a month, regime forces backed by Russian air power have been able to seize control of most of southwestern Daraa province, including the provincial capital of the same name. The city of Daraa was the cradle of the uprising against Bashar Assad more than seven years ago.
Alongside the military offensive, the government has struck “reconciliation” deals, essentially a negotiated capitulation in a number of villages that have been in rebel hands for years, to restore government control there.
Talks to hand over Nawa, one of the most densely populated towns in Daraa province, have been ongoing for a couple of days. That has encouraged displaced civilians to return to Nawa, said a local activist who goes by the name Selma Mohammed.
But the talks faltered, triggering the overnight onslaught and a new wave of displacement, with hundreds leaving the town again.
On Wednesday, the bombing focused on towns and villages surrounding Nawa, making the road in and out of town deadly, Mohammed said.
The Observatory said warplanes and ground forces have also targeted the southern tip of the region, which is held by militants affiliated with Daesh.
The regime offensive has displaced more than 230,000 people, many of them on the run in the open. Jordan said it will not take in new refugees and Israeli soldiers have shooed away dozens of protesters who had approached the frontier Tuesday, demanding protection.
Meanwhile, about 7,000 Syrians were expected to be evacuated from two pro-regime villages in northwestern Syria, ending a three-year siege by insurgents who control the surrounding area. Dozens of buses arrived in the Foua and Kfraya villages to transport the evacuees on Wednesday, Syrian state media said.
Evacuation deals have been criticized by the UN as forced displacement. A negotiated deal to evacuate Foua and Kfraya villagers earlier this year faltered after the evacuation of only 40 people from a third village. The evacuees’ first stop is the regime-controlled city of Aleppo.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that Russian and Syrian authorities had set up a refugee center in Syria to help refugees return home from abroad.