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Liberation of Libyan City Highlights Latest Counter-ISIL Efforts

By Terri Moon Cronk

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WASHINGTON, Dec. 19, 2016 — A campaign by the Government of National Accord in Libya has liberated the city of Sirte, where the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant had sought to establish a stronghold in North Africa, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said today.

161205-N-TO519-023 
MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Dec. 5, 2016) An AV-8B Harrier, from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), takes off from the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). The 22nd MEU, embarked on Wasp, is conducting precision air strikes in support of the Libyan Government aligned forces against Daesh targets in Sirte, Libya, as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nathan Wilkes/Released)
161205-N-TO519-023 MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Dec. 5, 2016) An AV-8B Harrier, from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), takes off from the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). The 22nd MEU, embarked on Wasp, is conducting precision air strikes in support of the Libyan Government aligned forces against Daesh targets in Sirte, Libya, as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nathan Wilkes/Released)
161205-N-TO519-023 
MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Dec. 5, 2016) An AV-8B Harrier, from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), takes off from the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). The 22nd MEU, embarked on Wasp, is conducting precision air strikes in support of the Libyan Government aligned forces against Daesh targets in Sirte, Libya, as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nathan Wilkes/Released) Operation Odyssey Lightning
161205-N-TO519-023 MEDITERRANEAN SEA (Dec. 5, 2016) An AV-8B Harrier, from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), takes off from the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). The 22nd MEU, embarked on Wasp, is conducting precision air strikes in support of the Libyan Government aligned forces against Daesh targets in Sirte, Libya, as part of Operation Odyssey Lightning. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Nathan Wilkes/Released)

“This was a tough fight, and we congratulate the GNA-aligned forces for their courage and determination,” Cook told reporters at a Pentagon briefing, “and we are proud to have supported this campaign to eliminate ISIL’s hold of the only city it has controlled outside Iraq and Syria.”

U.S. Africa Command carried out this mission with particular skill, the press secretary said, limiting the risk of civilian casualties while conducting airstrikes in Sirte. The United States will continue to keep an eye on the remnants of ISIL in Libya and will remain prepared to assist the GNA as appropriate, he added.

ISIL Degradation Continues

In Iraq, Iraqi security forces continue to degrade ISIL forces in Mosul, where the Iraqi forces have cleared about 20 percent of the city, Cook said. During his recently concluded around-the-globe trip in which he met and thanked U.S. service members for their service, Defense Secretary Ash Carter was also able to meet with Iraqi forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters conducting this campaign and thanked them personally for their courage and determination in a challenging fight in dense, urban terrain, he added.

The Syrian Democratic Forces over the weekend also accomplished a significant milestone in the drive to isolate and eventually liberate Raqqa, ISIL’s self-proclaimed capital in Syria, Cook said.

“SDF forces driving south have reached the Euphrates River northwest of Raqqa, which will help to isolate ISIL forces on that side of the river,” he told reporters. “Importantly, as they continue this isolation of Raqqa, the SDF is continuing to attract Arab fighters for future operations against ISIL.”

Strike in Afghanistan Kills al-Qaida Leaders

Turning to counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, Cook said an Oct. 23 U.S. precision airstrike near Kunar killed three senior al-Qaida leaders.

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The Defense Department had previously announced that the strike killed Faruq al-Qatani, al-Qaida's emir for eastern Afghanistan, Cook said. Officials now have determined the same strike also killed Bilal al-Utabyi, Qatani's deputy, as well as Abd al-Wahid al-Junabi, a senior al-Qaida explosives expert, the press secretary told reporters.

“The deaths of these three senior al-Qaida leaders will significantly disrupt the group’s ability to threaten the United States, our interests and our allies and highlights our continuing commitment to the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan,” he said. “This strike is further evidence that those who seek to do us harm are not beyond our reach.”

Cook began his briefing by telling reporters the Defense Department condemns the shooting of a Russian ambassador in Turkey, an event that was unfolding as the briefing began.

“We are aware of the situation in Turkey and the shooting of the Russian ambassador, and we condemn this act of violence,” the press secretary said. “Our thoughts are with the victims and their families.”

(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)