Fighters surge into two Gaddafi bastions
Sirte - Fighters loyal to Libya's new leaders surged on Friday into the city of Sirte and into Bani Walid oasis, two of fugitive Muammar Gaddafi’s few remaining bastions, officials and an AFP reporter said.
On the political front, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Tripoli, boosting international support for the National Transitional Council (NTC), a day after Britain's David Cameron and France's Nicolas Sarkozy became the first foreign leaders to visit the new Libya.
An AFP reporter reported heavy fighting in the early afternoon at the airport on the western side of Sirte, with NTC fighters firing rockets at Kadhafi loyalist guards, who replied with mortar fire.
Columns of NTC fighters backed by tanks launched the assault late morning on Sirte, 360km west of Tripoli, after a first attack the previous day was repulsed by loyalists, who set up sniper nests on rooftops.
The NTC said it had lost 11 fighters on Thursday, with 34 wounded. It added that 40 Gaddafi loyalists had been captured.
Senior military commander Salem Jear, also a member of Misrata Military Council, told AFP that NTC forces were nearing the centre of Sirte.
"We are advancing in from the west and the south towards the city centre," he said by telephone. "Our forces retreated strategically during the night but are now speeding towards the centre and some have already entered."
An NTC spokesperson in Tripoli, meanwhile, said the new regime's fighters had also entered the oasis town of Bani Walid southeast of Tripoli.
"Our revolutionaries have entered Bani Walid," Mahmud Shammam said of the town 170km from the capital without elaborating, adding only that "the situation will be resolved this evening".
Turkish premier Erdogan flew from Tunisia to Tripoli airport, where he was greeted by NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil.
Besides holding talks with the new leadership, Erdogan was to attend the weekly Muslim main prayers at an Ottoman-era mosque, an NTC official said.
The Turkish premier began his tour in Egypt, where he received a rapturous welcome, confirming his rising regional status.
His visit comes a day after Cameron and Sarkozy, whose forces spearheaded the NATO air war that helped topple Gaddafi, were mobbed in Tripoli and in the eastern city of Benghazi.
The two leaders are immensely popular among ordinary Libyans for their role in ending the fugitive strongman's 42 years of iron-fisted rule.
Gaddafi’s spokesperson Mussa Ibrahim, however, accused them of coming to plunder Libya's riches.
"The visit marks the start of a project of colonisation of Libya," Ibrahim charged in a telephone call late on Thursday to Syria-based Arrai television.
"They are hurrying to collect the fruits of the fall of Tripoli... because they obviously fear the arrival of America and other countries wanting a slice of the cake," he said, without disclosing where he was phoning from.
Gaddafi and members of his inner circle have been in hiding since Tripoli was overrun late last month, with the fugitive strongman still believed to be in Libya even though members of his family have fled to Algeria and Niger.
"They hurried to Tripoli to make secret deals with the collaborators and the traitors, and to take the control of oil and investments under the pretext of rebuilding," Ibrahim said.