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Libyan militias near IS stronghold, Sirte

Militias aligned with Libya's new unity government say they're nearing Sirte, the coastal city held by IS insurgents. The Pentagon says it's watching trends "very closely" and sending more ships to the Mediterranean.

Two Libyan pro-government militias said they had taken control over an air base and several military camps on the Sirte's outskirts, but "Islamic State" (IS) snipers were still hindering capture of the inner city.

Officials quoted by the news agency Associated Press early Friday said some IS militants had already fled Sirte and had cut off their beards to blend in with civilians.

IS extended its jihadist drive from the Middle East to Sirte in 2014, amid the chaos that had followed the ouster and death of Libyan dictator Muammer Gadhafi in 2011.

The militias, mostly from western Libya's Misrata region, have become the main fighting forces for the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) installed at a Tripoli naval base earlier this year.

Parallel push in northern Syria

The push for Sirte in Libya coincides with a parallel bid in northern Syria by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to capture the Aleppo province city of Manbij, another IS city stronghold.

The US military said a second American naval group led by the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower was nearing the Mediterranean to support anti-IS operations.

Snipers still active

A Misrata militant spokesman Mohamed al-Gasri said the Libya's governing alliance expected Sirte to be "liberated within days, not weeks."

IS snipers were still active. On Wednesday alone, 15 GNA-affiliated militiamen were killed and 95 injured, said a Misrata hospital spokesman quoted by Reuters.

Some had been flown to Turkey and Italy for treatment. That prompted the GNA on Thursday to call for international medical aid for "our heroes."

Last weekend, the GNA's premier Fayez al-Sarraj told the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche said sending foreign ground troops would be "contrary to our principles".

Libyen Tripolis Fayez Serraj Einheitsregierung

GNA premier al-Sarraj arrived in Tripoli in late March

"Rather we need satellite images, intelligence,

technical help

... not bombardments," he said.

His GNA is supposed to replace two rival governments that have competed for power in Libya since 2014, backed by a complex array of armed groups.

Eastern Libya is dominated by militias and some units of the national army commanded by controversial General Khalifa Haftar.

Pentagon 'encouraged'

At the Pentagon on Thursdsay, spokesman Peter Cook said the United States was "encouraged" by progress made by the GNA-affiliated militias.

"We will continue to watch it very closely," Cook said," adding that it would be a welcome development if the US and other nations did not need to get more involved.

Teams of US special operations soldiers have been rotated in and out of Libya for months, mainly to gain intelligence information.

US European Command spokesman David Westover said the Eisenhower naval group was currently in the Atlantic en route to the Mediterranean.

Already in the Mediterranean is the carrier strike group led by the USS Harry S. Truman.

Assad's backers meet in Tehran

Iranian state television said Thursday defense ministers of Iran, Russia and Syria had met in Tehran to discuss developments.

Iranian media quoted Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan as saying that Iran favored a ceasefire in Syria that did not "help terrorists to get more powerful."

Russia and Iran are the main backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

ipj/bw (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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