ISIS Militants 'Holed Up' in Sirte Headquarters as Libyan Forces Advance

Ahmed al-Mes-mari
Ahmed al-Mes-mari, a spokesman for Libya's opposition armed forces, which are made up of militias and some units of the national army, in Benghazi June 8. He said on Thursday that ISIS militants were holed up in their Sirte headquarters. Abdullah Doma/AFP/Getty Images

Libyan forces allied to the U.N.-backed government in Libya have penned in the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) at its headquarters in Sirte, forcing militants to shave their beards in a bid to flee the city, a media spokesman for the forces said Thursday.

Ahmed Hadiya, head of the media center for the anti-ISIS operation in Libya, told the Associated Press that the pro-government troops are preparing to capture the city's conference center, originally built by Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi as a venue for world leaders.

ISIS took over the political hub of Libya under Qaddafi in June 2015, capitalizing on instability in the country after Qaddafi's ousting at the height of the Arab Spring in October 2011.

The radical Islamist group imposed its brutal brand of Sharia law on the city's citizens, forcing many to flee from cruel punishments such as lashings, beheadings and crucifixions.

The pro-government forces have advanced to the eastern and southern edges of the city, capturing a military camp as well as bringing down a stage in the city's Zafarana square, where human rights groups say ISIS has killed at least 49 people by various methods.

Hadiya said that some ISIS fighters are shaving off their beards and long hair to escape the city, pretending to be civilians in what is a covert tactic used regularly by guerilla and extremist groups when pressured by opposing forces.

The U.N.-backed government in Libya, known as the Government of National Accord (GNA), was established in March. Based in Tripoli, it is vying to win over the different factions in the country that have been at the heart of the Libya's disunity since Qaddafi's fall.

In the battle to retake Sirte, Hadiya said that clashes have left at least 130 people and 400 injured. Officials told the Associated Press that a former government minister was among the 15 militia members killed in the campaign so far.