IN their boldest move so far, supporters of the Islamic State in Sirte appear to have extended their hold over the town, seizing its Ibn Sina hospital. Meanwhile other IS fighters are reported to have attacked oilfields southeast of the town.
They in turn are said to be being targeted by LNA (Libyan National Army) fighter planes, flown from Egypt.
A military convoy carrying IS flags reportedly surrounded the hospital on 13 February and ordered Misratah-based Central Libya Shield, which has been providing security there, to leave.
They told them to take all the patients in the hospital with them.
Libya Shield has apparently done so, removing the sick and wounded to Misratah. Unconfirmed reports claim the Sirte hospital is now flying the IS flag.
According to reports from Mabruk oilfield guards, IS gunmen also launched attacks on the nearby Bahi and Dahrah oilfields, both operated by Waha Oil.
Fighting with Petroleum Facilities Guards protecting the fields, which started on Friday night, was said to still be continuing on Saturday evening although there are reports that LNA aircraft have started bombing IS vehicles.
Ten days ago, IS fighters attacked Mabruk oil field, killing nine guards and seizing three Filipinos.
All three fields are southwest of Sidra, itself under attack from Operation Sunrise forces, linked to Libya Dawn.
In circumstances very similar to what happened in Darnah, Sirte has in the past few months been slowly taken over by Islamist forces. But these are now seen as coalescing around IS.
The hospital seizure is but the latest in a series of moves in recent days demonstrating its power.
Last Friday, IS took control of Sirte immigration centre, without any opposition.
On Saturday it took over a local radio station as well as the studios of Wataniyah TV, set up by the Gadaffi government for use whenever there was an international conference at the town’s Ouagadougou centre.
The latter was taken over by IS last week and is reportedly being split into an Islamic court and a college for women.
The militants, who were already broadcasting locally on FM from other studios, have now started broadcasting on AM from the seized radio station. The TV station is currently non-operational.
The IS in Sirte had already announced plans to set up a separate TV station in Sirte, named Tawhid. It too is not operating.
Forces claiming allegiance to IS are now operating freely in the surrounding area. Earlier this week, they took over the small desert town of Nawfaliyah 145 kilometres east of Sirte.
There are unconfirmed reports that some of the IS fighters were previously part of Operation Sunrise. However, there is a growing murderous divide between the IS and regulars from Misratah who have been the backbone of Sunrise.
Earlier last week, the decapitated bodies of first three, then another four members of Misratah’s Third Force were found west of Sirte. IS has been blamed.
The Islamic State organisation have now seized most of government buildings in the city of Sirte.
Among the seized facilities are the passport department, hospitals and the headquarters of the social insurance fund.
The group also seized control of the majority of radio stations in Sirte and played speeches of ISIS leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Central Libya has been the scene of acts of killing and security incidents, the most recent of which was the kidnapping of dozens of Egyptian Copts.
Authorities in the Libyan capital have beefed up security at main squares and around key facilities and at the entrances and exits of the city, as part of a campaign to combat the uncontrolled spread of arms and a surge in security incidents.
Umar al-Khadrawi, the director of Tripoli’s general department of central security, said the stepped-up security presence has become necessary due to ‘mounting security challenges’ in the capital.
Eyeing the turmoil in the rest of Libya, authorities in Tripoli deployed an elite police force as part of a campaign to secure the city.
Much to the relief of the public, night patrols were set up to arrest wanted people and to combat the uncontrolled spread of weapons.
A group of volunteers are part of a night patrol run by ‘Al-Nasr unit of the Martyrs of Suq al-Juma’ah Brigade’. They set up checkpoints at Tripoli’s main entrances to stop and search vehicles.
Ayman Tanibah, the commander of Al-Nasr unit, said there are young men on the run who carry unlicensed arms and don’t answer to the police or to the army. Some of those wanted men once belonged to security brigades, he said.
Chairman of the General National Congress (GNC) Nuri Abu-Sahmayn has agreed in a meeting he held with several military and security commanders to form a joint force to secure the town of Sirte and to restore the services controlled by armed groups to state authority.
The meeting was attended by the GNC chairman, members of the Political and Security Committee at the congress, the interior minister, and the chief of staff, in addition to the director of Libyan intelligence, commander of the joint operations room, and commander of the central military zone.
However the head of the Beida-based government’s Information and Culture Board has warned that following the Islamic State (IS) takeover of government buildings in Sirte, including TV and radio studios, other Libyan towns could be next.
‘It’s Sirte today,’ Umar al-Quwayri told the Libya Herald. ‘But where next tomorrow?’ He blamed the growth and success of IS on Libya Dawn.
It, he said, had backed and supported the militants, thus enabling them to seize the facilities in Sirte belonging to the Information Board and start broadcasting ‘their poisonous and extremist ideology’.
Hate and the promotion of violence were being spread by obscurantist forces, he declared. They did not accept freedom of expression, he said. ‘They only understand murder and repression,’ which they carried out in the name of Islam.
This latest takeover of the media facilities had happened after IS had seized several other buildings in the town, such the Ouagadougou Centre, the courts and the headquarters of the internal security forces.
But no-one from Libya Dawn, nor from the Misrata brigades had done anything about it, Al-Quwayri said, himself from Misrata.
Sirte was now being turned into a fiefdom of the Islamic State and its ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The future of the Italian embassy is now in the balance, said the Libya Herald on 14 February.
The Italian embassy, one of the last European missions to remain in Libya, is reported to be preparing to close because of concerns about deteriorating security in the capital.
The Italians say that they now have nowhere to stay because the hotel where they have been residing for several months is no longer considered secure.
The assessment follows last month’s terrorist attack on the Corinthia Hotel. ‘We are considering every possibility,’ an Italian official told the Libya Herald.
The embassy is known to have been under pressure back in Rome to follow other Western missions and close.
However, diplomats and the Italian Foreign Ministry have worked to remain in Libya, pointing out the importance of keeping a presence in a country that provides so much of Italy’s energy, particularly gas. But on Saturday, an Italian official admitted that closure was looking inevitable.
There are fears that as the only western embassy left in Tripoli, it would be targeted by Islamic State militants, particularly following Friday’s 13 February statement by Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni that Italy would not accept the presence of ‘an active terrorist threat only a few hours from Italy by boat,’ and would be willing to join a UN-led force against the militants if the current UN-brokered dialogue failed.
The situation in Libya, he said, was deteriorating and the possibility of an attack by Islamic State militants could not be discounted.
Gentiloni’s statement is seen as a development of the position taken by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in December when he said he could not rule out the possibility of international military intervention in Libya if diplomatic efforts for dialogue failed to bear fruit.
Reflecting its growing concerns, the Italian Foreign Ministry again told Italian nationals to leave Libya immediately because of the situation and threats by militants against foreigners.