As fall of Sirte nears, female suicide bombers attack

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BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — As Libyan fighters make their final push to dislodge Islamic State militants from their last bastion in Libya, female suicide bombers, including one who appeared to be carrying a baby, were among the group's last desperate attempts to slow down the fall of the city, officials said on Monday.

Two media officials and a senior military officer said that the city of Sirte is all but liberated, but final clearing operations are underway — focusing on about 13 buildings containing an estimated 30 fighters and suspected of having tunnels dug beneath them. They also say that they are postponing a declaration of the liberation of Sirte, until a clear plan is in place for what happens next.

"We have a problem now of who is going to protect the city and what is the mechanism," said the senior military official, adding, "We are also afraid people will rush back while the city is not secure, filled with land mines and pockets of militants."

A media official at the anti-IS campaign said, "The mopping up of the last bastion of the group is taking place right now. Practically speaking, the city is under control."

In one week, the senior military official said that eight suicide bombers tried to delay the advancement of pro-government forces — including three women who blew themselves up near the safe corridors set up for the exit of civilians and the families of IS militants.

A young Tunisian woman who pretended to carry a baby was among the bombers, the senior official and a spokesman said. As she stepped in with the fleeing families, officials said, she blew herself up, killing two women, and injuring a number of children. Two other female suicide bombers also struck within two days of each other, however there were no casualties but the bombers themselves, the officials said.

The military and media officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

IS and other extremist groups gained a foothold in Libya over the years of chaos that engulfed the North African country in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Militias, originally made up of NATO-backed rebels, quickly filled the security vacuum

The country has been split between rival parliaments and governments, each backed by a loose array of militias and tribes. Western nations view the newly-formed U.N.-brokered government as the best hope for uniting the country, but Libya's parliament, which meets in the far east, has refused to accept it.

The birthplace of Gadhafi, Sirte has a strategic importance because of its proximity to the oil terminals, Libya's primary source of revenue. The forces that led the campaign against IS are made up of mainly militias from the western city of Misrata, who have a tense relationship with Sirte residents.

In 2011, Misrata militias conducted a series of extrajudicial killings, sabotage, and looting in Sirte, viewing the city as a den of Gadhafi loyalists. Gadhafi was found and killed there after he escaped custody in August 2011, leaving lingering Sirte-Misrata animosities. As a result, officials say that having Misrata forces guard the city could be a problematic.

The campaign against Sirte started in June, but stalled several times either because of the ferocity of IS resistance or lack of equipment such as mine-sweeping gear.

Misrata Hospital spokesman Akram Glawan said the operation has claimed the lives of 711 fighters and injured nearly 3,200 others. The hospital also received wounded from among the children and the wives of IS fighters. He said that a total of 11 children under the age of five were received by the hospital this week and a number of IS women were treated then handed over to authorities.

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