“Car bomb, car bomb” scream the Libyan fighters launching their last attack on the black flags in Sirte. The suicide bomber at the wheel of the vehicle transformed into an explosive ram zig zags along a two-lane highway towards a residential building which now serves as a trench marking the front line. Shots fired by light weaponry bounce off the improvised armor plating. It isn’t easy to stop it with an Rpg. It is total mayhem. Everyone is shouting and shooting. A tank at the end of the road tries to blast it. Finally as we are hit by the full blow of air generated by a powerful explosion we feel the touch of death brought on by a suicide bombers. The car bomb has been hit and exploded twenty meters from our post. Its blackened carcass burns in the middle of the road.
The final offensive to free the two neighborhoods still in the hands of the Caliph’s followers began yesterday morning. From Anaga residential area opposite district 3, where the last jihadist militia have barricaded themselves all hell breaks loose. The Misurata katibe (units) under the control of the new government in Tripoli are advancing from the southern front to close them in. From the building we’re in every room becomes a fighting post. Weapons shoot from the few centimeters available under the lowered blinds or the windows covered with blankets or curtains so as not to be hit by snipers. The machine guns crackle incessantly as explosives detonate. During the final battle the black flags launch 13 car bombs driven by suicide bombers 5 of which are hit by American forces from the sky.
“Even if there are only a few of them left they won’t give up,” says Mustafa Shebani, the young commander of the third brigade, “In Ouagadougou (an Isis stronghold which was reconquered) there were only five Daesh militia men left (Islamic State N/A). From behind a wall we ordered them to put down their weapons. They answered that they would fight until they died. and that we weren’t true Muslims, just dogs at the service of the Americans.”
The last assault to free Sirte starts on Sunday morning at ten with 30,000 men who since May have been tightening the circle around the Caliph’s former stronghold in Libya. A T72 tank positioned on the corner of the road leading to neighborhood 1 fires a shell following the operator’s cry, “Allah o akbar” (God is great). The black flags respond with snipers and mortar bombs, trying to hit the armored vehicles. The grenades’ terrifying impact causes a spiral of black smoke which merges with the white clouds in the sky making the battle even more somber and sinister.
The fighters are lined up keeping shelter from the Sirte residential buildings reduced to cement potholes by the missiles. Everyone, including journalists, has to stick a red adhesive on themselves to avoid being mistaken for Islamic State fighters. Some have helmets, others bulletproof vests, but they wear sandals and no two people are dressed alike. Some even carry a good luck charm such as a cuddly toy. Despite their ramshackle appearance and chaotic manner of fighting the Libyan troops are one step away from freeing Sirte.
With our truck we venture through a dangerous maze of alleys and larger streets where containers in the middle of the roads mark a no man’s land. In neighborhood 1 the troops are advancing, but in neighborhood 3, the largest, the resistance holds on. By the end of the day, with 35 dead and 180 injured, the katibe (units) have only managed to gain one kilometer. “They know it’s the end for them, there’s no hope. That is why they are persevering more than in previous battles. They have nothing to lose. They are all going to die,” declares Abdullah who at 25 is already a veteran. On the eastern front brigade 166, the most feared and organized of all Misurata’s katibas, is closing in.
To the west the troops on the Anaga frontline complain that their chow hasn’t arrived, but continue to shoot incessantly running like madmen alongside a mound of sand which is supposed to protect them. In order to attract the snipers they have placed a helmet on a stick and whoever
wants fires away using Kalashnikovs or light machine guns towards the black flags’ posts.
On the main road a tank fires shells every five minutes. The battle to free Sirte isn’t over yet.