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Libya US air raids lift morale of country's anti-IS force on the ground

Fighters allied to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) have waged a fierce weeks-long battle to retake the coastal city of Sirte from the jihadists.

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US air raids lift morale of Libya anti-IS force on the ground play

A military vehicle used by fighters from the pro-government forces loyal to Libya's Government of National Unity (GNA) is seen near ammunition casing on August 3, 2016 in Sirte during an operation against jihadists of the Islamic State groupĀ 

(AFP STR, Mahmud Turkia)

Crouched behind a cement wall to avoid sniper fire, Libyan pro-government fighters say US air strikes on the Islamic State jihadist group in its Sirte bastion have boosted morale.

Fighters allied to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) have waged a fierce weeks-long battle to retake the coastal city of Sirte from the jihadists.

"The US intervention is very good. The air strikes are very good and have targeted sensitive Daesh (IS) positions," Mohamad al-Ahjal told AFP on Thursday as he took cover in the courtyard of an abandoned house.

"We hope they will intensify the air strikes in the coming days for us to make progress on the battlefield," said Ahjal, wearing a cowboy hat and a military jacket over a black sleeveless shirt.

Ahjal and nine other fighters from the pro-government "Hawks of Misrata" unit lay low in the courtyard of the house, less than 250 metres (yards) from the nearest IS position.

They were waiting for the return of comrades from the frontlines to take over and jump back into the fray.

"Our morale has been lifted, especially after the last raids carried out by our American friends," said Khaled al-Ghosh, another fighter.

"They were excellent hits. Victory will be close if there are more such hits," he added.

The United States opened a new front in its campaign against IS on Monday by launching air strikes on jihadists holed up in the centre of Sirte, at the request of the UN-backed government.

The loss of Sirte would be a major blow to the jihadist group, which has faced a series of setbacks in Syria and Iraq, where a US-led coalition and local forces are battling IS.

- 'Very, very heavy casualties' -

US warplanes carried out seven strikes against IS positions in Sirte on Monday and Tuesday.

Libya pro-GNA forces launched the campaign to retake Sirte in May.

Since then, more than 300 pro-government forces have been killed and 1,500 wounded, according to medical sources.

In June, pro-government forces entered the city but their progress has been slow as IS hit back with sniper fire, suicide attacks and car bombings.

"We asked for US support to limit our losses," after suffering "very, very heavy" casualties, a spokesman for the GNA forces, General Mohamad Ghassri, told AFP.

"We have had more than 100 amputations, numerous clinical deaths and gravely wounded," Ghassri said.

On a beach west of Sirte, three pro-GNA forces manned an observation point not far from an IS position.

One was standing near a makeshift tent built with a carpet strung over a wooden stick, while inside two other fighters sheltered from the scorching heat.

One of them peered through binoculars and the other, gripping a machine gun, stared ahead, his gaze locked on an IS position.

- Blood can save a life -

On the western outskirts of Sirte, pro-GNA forces have set up a field hospital for the wounded, who are then transferred to the city of Misrata, where they have their command centre.

The field hospital has set up a special Facebook page to post pictures of pro-GNA casualties, as well as advice for fighters to wear flak jackets and helmets.

It also appeals for blood donations, telling fellow Libyans: "Your blood can save a life."

Further west in the capital Tripoli, road signs have been erected urging donations of money to help the campaign against "terrorism".

"The US raids are intensifying the (anti-IS) campaign, but on the ground the fighters are the ones who will achieve victory," said a member of Sirte city council, now based in Misrata.

"The bodies of IS jihadists are littering the streets of Sirte," he said. "We are impatient to go back to Sirte and clean up our city."

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