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Sirte: Gaddafi birthplace in crosshairs of Libya conflict

Sirte lies on the Mediterranean coast, roughly halfway between Tripoli in the west and Libya's second city Benghazi in the east, and just 300 kilometres (190 miles) from the shores of Italy

AFP , Saturday 22 Aug 2020
Sirte
Men sit on the sidewalk of a beach in Sirte, Libya August 17, 2020. Picture taken August 17, 2020. REUTERS
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Libya's coastal city of Sirte, home town of ex-leader Muammar Gaddafi and a strategic gateway to oil export ports, is now at the centre of tensions between rival forces.

On Friday, Libya's warring rival administrations announced in separate statements they would cease all hostilities and organise nationwide elections.

But the promised ceasefire leaves the fate of Sirte hanging in the balance.

Buffer between GNA and Haftar

Libyan national Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Haftar, who controls most of eastern Libya, seized Sirte in January, months after launching an assault on the capital Tripoli, the base of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

Sirte had been held by GNA forces since December 2016 when they ousted Islamic State group jihadists after six months of fighting.

Haftar's forces, backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, entered the city almost unopposed.

Backed by Turkey, GNA fighters have pushed pro-Haftar forces from most of western Libya, recapturing a string of strategic cities and positions.

And they have vowed to retake Sirte, the last major settlement before the traditional boundary between western Libya and Haftar's stronghold in the east.

On Friday, GNA head Fayez al-Sarraj said the ceasefire would allow the creation of "demilitarised zones" in Sirte and the Al-Jufra region further south that Haftar's forces control.

But Aguila Saleh, speaker of the eastern-based parliament backed by Haftar, did not mention demilitarisation zones, proposing however the installation of a new government in Sirte.

In June, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi warned that Sirte was a "red line" that Turkey-backed forces should not cross.

Strategic importance

Sirte lies on the Mediterranean coast, roughly halfway between Tripoli in the west and Libya's second city Benghazi in the east, and just 300 kilometres (190 miles) from the shores of Italy.

It is also a mere 150 kilometres west of Libya's main oil export terminals.

In May 2016, pro-GNA forces used Libya's third-largest city, Misrata, as a launchpad for operations to oust IS from Sirte, fearful the jihadists were seeking to control Libya's key oil region.

The traditional boundary between Libya's western Tripolitania and eastern Cyrenaica regions lies just east of Sirte.

Sirte's only importance for centuries lay in its geographic position as the largely desert region separated Roman provinces from Greek ones.

Gaddafi's birthplace

Gaddafi was born in Sirte in 1942 and made great efforts to turn the city into the capital of his "Jamahiriya" -- a "state of the masses" run by local committees.

He created a new province around Sirte in addition to the three existing regions of Cyrenaica in the east, Fezzan in the south, and Tripolitania in the west.

In the 1990s, he ordered ministries to be created in the coastal city, and even set up a parliament there, but eventually gave up on his plans.

Gaddafi was captured and killed in the town on October 20, 2011.

Jihadist bastion

After Gaddafi's ouster in a NATO-backed uprising, Sirte was largely left to its own devices until it fell in June 2015 into the hands of IS, who flew their jihadist flag over public buildings.

In December 2016, backed by US warplanes, drones and helicopters that conducted more than 460 strikes, GNA forces drove the jihadists out of the city after six months of heavy fighting.

Population

Sirte consisted of several villages spread along the coast with a mostly rural population, including cattle breeders, farmers and a few craftsmen.

Most of its people belong to four major tribes, including the Gaddafa tribe of Gaddafi, the powerful and large Werfalla who populate the west, the Forjane and the Magariha who were closest to the Kadhafi regime.

Before the uprising, the city had a population of around 120,000, but after years of conflict only about 50,000 remain.

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