Disease and mines rule in Libya's former IS bastion

Imed Lamloum

Sirte (Libya) (AFP) - In the district of Al-Giza al-Bahriya in Libya's Sirte, the sea breeze mingles with the stench of corpses decomposing under the rubble.

The coastal neighbourhood was the last part of the Islamic State group's north African bastion to fall to unity government-allied forces on December 5 after nearly seven months of fighting.

Two weeks later, many residents of Sirte are unable to return to their homes -- those that are still standing.

"We fear an epidemic," said Ahmad Bala, a commander of pro-government forces, who sat in a 4x4 and wore a mask to block the stink.

"The situation in Al-Giza al-Bahriya doesn't allow residents to go home. Dozens of corpses are still under the rubble. The smell is horrible and there is a risk of catching diseases," he said.

Forces allied with Libya's Government of National Accord were supported by the United States, which hammered the district with air strikes until it announced an end to its Sirte operations on Tuesday.

Bala said IS jihadists and their families hid in tunnels to escape the bombing.

"They were found trapped. Men, but also women and children who died of hunger and thirst under the rubble," he said.

- 'Stuffed with explosives' -

"We don't have the capacity to extract the bodies or demine the area, which was stuffed with explosive devices" by IS, he said.

In Al-Giza al-Bahriya's central square, three corpses lie in black bags on the ground, largely ignored by passers-by.

"The (Libyan) Red Crescent pulled them out of the rubble two days ago. They put them here and left," said Mohammed, another pro-government fighter.

"We shouldn't blame them. They have no resources."

At a roundabout a few hundred metres (yards) away, barely a building is left standing. The area has become a wasteland of concrete and scrap metal.

Containers block the main arteries of residential areas along the sea front, the most affected by the fighting, "to prevent onlookers from approaching", Bala said.

The town still lacks mobile phone and internet connections within a 100-kilometre (60-mile) radius.

While life has ground to a halt in the city centre, it is slowly returning in Al-Sabaa, a suburb that largely escaped the fierce fighting in the centre.

In this district of unpainted concrete brick houses, the silence is broken by the yelling of young men playing football on an improvised pitch where two rusty metal frames serve as goalposts.

- 'Months of terror' -

"This allows us to forget for a while the difficult situation we've been living through for several months," said Salah Fathi, 28, as he waited for his turn to play.

The young graduate left Sirte with his family and headed for the capital Tripoli at the start of the GNA's offensive against the jihadists in April.

"We were able to return home a few weeks ago," he said. "Since then we've been trying to get back a normal life, but it's difficult."

There is no mains water, the telephone lines are down and people have to send their children to an unfamiliar school several kilometres away, said Al-Bashir Souissi Ahmad, a 60-year-old father of 10.

He said most of the district's 350 families have returned home "after months of terror under IS".

Sirte had around 120,000 residents before the jihadists seized it in 2015. Loyalist forces say most managed to flee following the IS takeover.

Many have returned to areas where the electricity supply has been restored -- but much of the city remains without power.

"We're doing everything we can to repair the damage," said Ahmad Dabour, an electricity company engineer in charge of restoring Sirte's power supply.

But he also complained about a lack of resources and said he was on the point of giving up.

"I don't think I will stay for long," he said. "We don't have enough staff and we can't work in a minefield."