Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government take cover during a battle with Islamic State fighters in Sirte, Libya, July 15, 2016 (Photo: Reuters)
Pro-government forces battled Thursday to clear the Islamic State group from its main Libyan stronghold of Sirte, after dealing a major blow to the jihadists by seizing their headquarters.
IS fighters still control several areas of the Mediterranean city, whose capture in June last year sparked fears that the extremist group would use it as a springboard for attacks on Europe.
The fall of Sirte would be a huge setback to the jihadists' efforts to expand their self-proclaimed "caliphate" beyond Syria and Iraq where they have also suffered a string of losses.
Forces loyal to Libya's UN-backed unity government made a significant breakthrough Wednesday in their nearly three-month-old offensive to retake the city, seizing a conference centre where IS had set up a base.
"The battle for Sirte has reached its final phase, after the successful offensive by our heroes," a spokesman for the forces, General Mohamad Ghassri, said Thursday in remarks carried by the LANA news agency.
The rapid advance comes after the United States launched air strikes on IS positions in the city for the first time on August 1.
IS took advantage of the chaos that followed the ouster and killing of longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011 to gain a foothold in the oil-rich North African country.
The forces loyal to the Government of National Accord on Wednesday also seized the University of Sirte campus just south of the Ouagadougou conference centre as well as the Ibn Sina Hospital to the north.
Libyan television broadcast images of flag-waving soldiers in recaptured areas including the Ouagadougou centre, flashing victory signs as they posed for photographs.
The pro-GNA forces said 16 of their fighters were killed and dozens wounded Wednesday in the fighting in Sirte, Kadhafi's hometown which lies just across the Mediterranean from Italy.
It was unclear how many IS fighters were killed, but the centre said that at least 20 jihadists had died in fighting for the university campus.
In total more than 300 pro-government fighters have been killed and 1,800 wounded in the operation for Sirte, according to medical sources in the city of Misrata, where the operation's command centre in based.
They have faced determined resistance from the jihadists who have struck back with sniper fire, suicide attacks and car bombings.
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that US commandos were working from a joint operations centre on the outskirts of Sirte, the first time they have directly supported Libyan forces in the anti-IS fight.
Quoting US officials speaking on condition of anonymity, the Post said the US forces were operating alongside British troops, helping to coordinate American air strikes and providing intelligence.
GNA chief Fayez al-Sarraj told Italy's Corriere della Sera in an interview published on Wednesday that his government had asked only for "air strikes which must be very precise and limited in time and geographical scope".
"We do not need foreign troops on Libyan soil," Sarraj said.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi faced criticism at home on Thursday for reportedly sending special forces to Libya to help the anti-IS fight without approval from parliament.
Renzi's centre-left government has refused to confirm or deny reports that dozens of special forces have been deployed to help with demining and training pro-GNA forces.
France last month confirmed it had troops in Libya, saying three of the soldiers had been killed while on a mission there.
That prompted a demand from Sarraj for an explanation about the French presence, which the GNA described as a "violation" of the nation's sovereignty.