SIRTE IS LIBERATED FROM ISIS – says Libya’s unity government

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TRIPOLI – Libya’s unity government leader Fayez al-Sarraj on Saturday officially announced the end of military operations in Sirte, after the liberation from Islamic State group forces of what was the last significant territory they held in the country.

However prime minister-designate Sarraj warned that the battle against the Islamic rebels was not over. Eight months after the start of the operations against ISIS in the coastal town of Sirte ‘I officially announce the end of military operations and the liberation of the town’, Sarraj said in a televised speech two weeks after the announcement that the area was in control of forces loyal to the government.

The capture of Sirte, first announced on December 5, boosts the authority of Sarraj’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which was launched in Tripoli in March but whose legitimacy is contested by a rival administration based in eastern Libya.

The country descended into chaos following the NATO-backed ousting of longtime Leader Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, with rival administrations emerging and well-armed militias vying for control of its vast oil wealth. The infighting and lawlessness allowed extremist groups such as IS to seize several coastal regions, giving the jihadists a toehold on Europe’s doorstep.

The fall of Sirte – Gadaffi’s home town located 450 kilometres (280 miles) east of Tripoli – is a major setback for ISIS, which has also faced a series of military defeats in Syria and Iraq. Sarraj made the announcement on Sirte on the first anniversary of the signing of a peace agreement in Morocco.

‘The battle for Sirte is over but the war against terrorism in Libya is not finished,’ he warned, stressing the need to unify the various military forces into ‘one single army’. The GNA is the centrepiece of Western hopes to stem the upsurge of jihadism in Libya, as well as to halt people trafficking across the Mediterranean that has led to thousands of drownings. But the unity government headed by Sarraj has struggled to replace the two rival administrations.

• Dozens of buses began entering the last rebel-held parts of Aleppo on Sunday to resume the evacuation of thousands of increasingly desperate trapped Syrian civilians and rebels. The operation was suspended on Friday, a day after convoys of evacuees had begun leaving the rebel sector under a deal allowing the regime to take full control of the battleground city.

Buses started entering several neighbourhoods on Sunday under the supervision of the Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) ‘to bring the remaining terrorists and their families out,’ state news agency SANA said, referring to the rebels.

A military source confirmed that a new evacuation deal had been reached. State television said 100 buses would take people out of Aleppo. The main obstacle to a resumption had been a disagreement over the number of people to be evacuated in parallel from two Shiite villages, Fuaa and Kafraya, under rebel siege in northwestern Syria.

A rebel representative said on Sunday that a new agreement had been reached under which evacuations would take place in two phases from Aleppo, Fuaa and Kafraya as well as Zabadani and Madaya, two rebel towns besieged by the regime in Damascus province.

In New York, the UN Security Council was set to meet at 1600 GMT on Sunday to vote on French proposals to dispatch monitors to Aleppo to oversee evacuations and report on the protection of civilians. The draft text said the council was ‘alarmed’ by the worsening humanitarian crisis and by the fact that ‘tens of thousands of besieged Aleppo inhabitants’ are in need of aid and evacuation.

‘Our goal through this resolution is to avoid another Srebrenica in this phase immediately following the military operations,’ French Ambassador Francois Delattre said, referring to a 1995 Bosnian war massacre. But the proposals face resistance from veto-wielding Russia, a key backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Families have been sheltering during the night in freezing temperatures in bombed out apartment blocks in Aleppo’s Al-Amiriyah district, the departure point for evacuations before they were halted. A correspondent who visited a hospital in the rebel sector saw appalling conditions with patients lying on the floor without food or water and almost no heating.

Abu Omar said that after waiting outside in the cold for nine hours the previous day, he had returned on Saturday only to be told the buses were not coming. ‘There’s no more food or drinking water, and the situation is getting worse by the day,’ he said, adding that his four children were sick because of the cold.

Dozens of trucks with humanitarian aid crossed the Turkish border Saturday into Syria, piling supplies in a buffer zone. Aleppo has seen some of the worst violence of the nearly six-year war that has killed more than 310,000 people. UN envoy Staffan de Mistura estimated that as of Thursday around 40,000 civilians and perhaps as many as 5,000 opposition fighters remained in Aleppo’s rebel enclave.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) appealed for safe passage for the civilians still trapped in the city. ‘People have suffered a lot. Please come to an agreement and help save thousands of lives,’ said ICRC Syria delegation head Marianne Gasser. We cannot abandon these people.’

A Turkish official said 90 wounded from Aleppo have crossed into Turkey for treatment since Thursday. Before evacuations were suspended around 8,500 people, including some 3,000 fighters, left for rebel-held territory elsewhere in the north, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On Friday, a convoy of evacuees that had already left east Aleppo when the operation was suspended was forced to turn back. The ICRC said it was looking into reports of shooting before the convoy was turned around. The main regional supporters of the rival sides in the devastating civil war have engaged in a flurry of diplomacy to try to secure a resumption of evacuations. The official Iranian news agency IRNA said the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran would meet Tuesday in Moscow to discuss the conflict.

• For the first time in several years Egyptian authorities on Sunday morning allowed Palestinian vehicles to travel into Egypt from Gaza through the Rafah border crossing.

Palestinian security sources in Gaza reported that 40 vehicles passed through the Rafah crossing into Egyptian territory on Sunday morning.

Sources added that allowing the entry of vehicles was a ‘positive step’ taken by Egypt, and would serve as great a benefit for the more than 1.8 million people living under blockade in the coastal enclave, who typically travel in buses back and forth through the crossing.

Egypt opened the Rafah crossing on Sunday for the second of a three-day opening to allow the entry of ‘humanitarian cases’ – including patients, students, and holders of visas from foreign countries – from Gaza into Egypt. The Gaza borders and crossings committee said in a statement that more than 600 passengers left the Gaza Strip to Egypt on Saturday, while 82 Palestinians arrived in Gaza from Egypt.

Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities denied entry to 68 passengers from Gaza without explanation. Egyptian authorities had announced on Thursday that they would be opening the Rafah crossing for three days starting on Saturday, with security sources saying that the decision to open the border came upon order from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ‘to lessen the siege on the Gaza Strip by opening the crossing twice a month.’

Egypt has upheld an Israeli military blockade on the Gaza Strip for the majority of the past three years, since the ousting of former President Muhammad Morsi in 2013 and the rise to power of President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt. While the Egyptian border has remained the main lifeline for Gazans to the outside world, Egyptian authorities have slowly sealed off movement through the border since Morsi was toppled by the Egyptian army.

Due to the constraints on Palestinian movement through the crossing, many Gazans are commonly barred from leaving or entering the besieged coastal enclave, some for months at a time, as the crossing is only periodically opened by Egyptian authorities, stranding Palestinians on both sides of the crossing during closures.

In 2015, the Rafah crossing was closed for 344 days. The crossing has been reopened on a more regular basis since the beginning of 2016. The near decade-long Israeli blockade has plunged the Gaza Strip’s 2 million Palestinians into extreme poverty and some of the highest unemployment rates in the world.

Gaza’s infrastructure has yet to recover from the devastation of three Israeli offensives over the past six years. The slow and sometimes stagnant reconstruction of the besieged coastal enclave has only been worsened by the blockade, leading the UN in September to warn that Gaza could be ‘uninhabitable’ by 2020.