Fierce fighting as Clinton visits Tripoli
Sirte - Fierce street fighting erupted in Muammar Gaddafi’s sole remaining bastion of Sirte on Tuesday, as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a surprise visit to Tripoli in a bid to forge closer ties with the new regime.
National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters suffered at least two deaths and dozens of injuries in the first 40 minutes of battle, as Sirte's streets reverberated with the sound of heavy gunfire, rockets and mortars.
Fighters were running in their hundreds through the streets of the last two neighbourhoods still in the hands of the loyalists, the Dollar and Number Two.
Pickup trucks brought the wounded back to a field hospital opened on the edge of the neighbourhood, with the AFP reporter counting at least 35 injured.
The bodies of two fighters hit directly with mortars were brought to the clinic wrapped in blankets, which were still smouldering.
"They are shooting at us from everywhere, with snipers, mortars and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]," said one fighter, Tahar Burzeza. "It is brutal inside. We are being shot from everywhere."
American filmmaker Matthew van Dyke, who took up arms with the rebels after he was released in August from six months in Kadhafi's notorious Abu Salim prison, was in the thick of Tuesday's fighting on the eastern side of Sirte.
"I think a lot of fighters are also getting hit by what could be friendly fire," because fighters from Misrata were also shooting from the west side, he said.
Another fighter, Abdel Basit Hadia, said "the target is to end the fight today or tomorrow. We are encircling them" in Number Two.
In the desert oasis of Bani Walid, the new government flag was raised after the only other remaining holdout was liberated on Monday.
Saif al-Lasi, a commander of the Zliten Brigade, one of the NTC units involved in the final assault launched on Sunday, said "the city of Bani Walid has been completely liberated."
In Tripoli, Clinton became the first US cabinet official to visit Libya since 2008, when Washington wanted to forge a new relationship with Gaddafi, and is now seeking close ties with those who ousted him.
In a lightning visit amid tight security, she was to meet NTC chairperson Mustafa Abdel Jalil, interim premier Mahmud Jibril, and oil and finance minister Ali Tarhuni.
Speaking on the flight to Tripoli, via Malta, a senior US State Department official said the United States aimed to forge new civilian ties with the Libyan people.
"It's not only that we want to be talking to Libyan officials about their own transition plans forward and how they translate their commitment to justice, transparency, rule of law into practice," he told reporters.
"But it is also to signal to the Libyan people that we want a normal partnership going forward that is based on civilian relationships," the official said on condition of anonymity.
In the short term, he said Washington wants to provide parts and chemicals for the medical equipment needed to care for thousands of war wounded, while also transferring difficult cases to specialist US hospitals.
It also wants to expand educational programmes for Libyans at home and in the United States, provide job training for the war wounded and offer grants to develop archaeological sites in eastern Libya, which could bolster tourism.
More broadly, he said, the US wants to talk about "how to integrate Libya fully into the 21st century world economy in transparent ways where Libya's oil wealth is used for the benefit of all of Libya's citizens".
The United States said it has so far spent $135m, including for humanitarian assistance as well as boots and uniforms for the NTC forces, since the conflict broke out in February.
US officials said the United States also seeks to raise from about $30m to about $40m the assistance it gives Libya to find and destroy shoulder-fired rockets known as MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defence Systems).
The senior US official acknowledged concerns about civil war but said the tide was turning against Gaddafi and his sons, who were still at large, and loyalist fighters who were holed up in Sirte.
Evacuation of workers
"None of us know where Gaddafi is ... But he has people, henchmen, loyalists, sons, here and there, who still have circles around them," the official said.
Stopping over in Malta, Clinton thanked the country for evacuating Americans from Libya at the start of the rebellion.
The Mediterranean island state is the closest European country to Libya and has been a centre for humanitarian aid efforts and the evacuation of workers from the strife-torn country.
Several relatives of leading Gaddafi regime officials fled Sirte on Monday, among them the mother and a brother of Gaddafi spokesperson Mussa Ibrahim, a senior NTC commander said.
Additionally, around 30 people - men, women and children - were taken out of the two loyalist strongholds by NTC fighters.
The United States has voiced concern for the civilians caught in the crossfire in Sirte.
There were also fears for "Africans still being detained based apparently on their skin colour and an assumption that they have supported Gaddafi", the State Department said.
Immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are suspected of having supported the ousted Libyan strongman because he had brought in black mercenaries to fight the pro-democracy camp when the fighting first erupted earlier this year.