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Washington • U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Libya continued for a second day Tuesday, as President Barack Obama called the new bombing campaign critical to protecting U.S. national security interests.
The strikes are needed to ensure that Libya's fragile new Government of National Accord is "able to finish the job" and drive the militants out of the troubled North African country, Obama said.
Obama authorized the Pentagon to open a new, more persistent military front against Islamic State insurgents in Libya after the internationally backed government there asked for help with precision-targeting inside the city of Sirte.
Obama told reporters Tuesday at a White House news conference that the campaign would continue for as long as necessary "to assure that ISIL does not get a stronghold in Libya." And he reiterated his regret that conditions in the country deteriorated since the NATO-led bombing campaign that drove longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi from power in 2011.
"I think that all of us collectively were not sufficiently attentive to what had to happen the day after and the day after and the day after that in order to ensure that there were strong structures in place to assure basic security and peace inside of Libya," he said. He added that the instability in the country helped fuel the migration crisis in Europe and humanitarian tragedies as people fled Libya.
Earlier this year, Islamic State militants tried to establish a headquarters in Libya, seeking safe haven as the group came under greater pressure from the U.S.-led coalition bombings in Iraq and Syria.
But, the number of IS fighters in Libya has dwindled from as many as 6,000 to now just some hundreds, weakened by an offensive launched in May by local militias, including many under the control of the U.N.-brokered government.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters the U.S. launched airstrikes on five locations in Sirte Monday and two Tuesday, targeting tanks, vehicles, a rocket launcher and Islamic State fighting positions.
U.S. officials said Marine Corps strike aircraft participated in the mission, flying from the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship in the Mediterranean Sea. The AV-8B Harriers conducted strikes on at least one location Monday, and were expected to fly again Tuesday, according to the defense officials, who were not authorized to discuss the missions publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
He said a small number of U.S. forces are in Libya working out of an air operations center to help assess and validate targeting information that the Libyans are giving to the Americans. The precision bombing, he said, has enabled the U.S. to take out militants that had blocked the Libya fighters from pushing further into Sirte's center city.
The goal of what Davis called a "finite" military campaign is to drive the Islamic State group out of Sirte. He said the mission is expected to last weeks, not months.