Fierce resistance from Gaddafi diehards
Sirte - Ferocious attacks by Gaddafi diehards forced fighters of Libya's new rulers to retreat from the ousted strongman's birthplace Sirte, where a tank shell killed three in a "friendly fire" attack.
Equally fierce resistance from loyalists in the desert town of Bani Walid, Muammar Gaddafi’s other remaining bastion of support, has stalled a final assault by National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters, said commanders, who called on Nato to increase its air support.
While the fugitive Gaddafi’s whereabouts remain unknown, Libya's defence ministry spokesperson Ahmed Bani said in Tripoli one of his sons, Saif al-Islam, was in Bani Walid and another, Mutassim, in Sirte.
Along with his father and former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, Saif is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.
An NTC commander in eastern Sirte told AFP that fighting which raged into Wednesday night was the fiercest yet since new regime forces launched their assault on the Mediterranean port city on September 15.
"There were heavy clashes [on Wednesday]. Our men came under heavy attack," said the commander, who asked not to be identified.
The fighting was so intense, he added, that his forces were forced to retreat 3km outside the city.
"They [Gaddafi loyalists] have lost everything. This is their last battle and so are fighting fiercely. Our troops are taking a heavy beating at the moment. Today we retreated 3km," he said, adding that battles were concentrated at the port and the city's eastern outskirts.
NTC fighters captured the port in east Sirte two days ago, in a major victory for their battle for control of the Gaddafi stronghold.
It was unclear whether the port was still under their control, but the commander said NTC forces were still present there late on Wednesday.
"It is becoming a day-to-day fight. One day we are winning, the next day they are winning," he said.
In a separate incident, three NTC fighters were killed by "friendly fire" on Wednesday when they were shelled by a tank on the frontline in eastern Sirte, the commander said.
"There was some lack of co-ordination and... our fighters were hit by a shell fired by our tank stationed behind them. There were three martyrs," he said.
In another incident, medics at a field hospital about 50km west of Sirte said on Thursday two fighters were killed and 18 were wounded when a rocket in a munitions dump fired accidentally, possibly due to rain, and slammed into their room.
The anti-Gaddafi forces have urged Nato to intensify its air war because of heavy losses both in Sirte and in Bani Walid, where senior NTC commander Daou al-Salhine al-Jadak was among 11 fighters killed in a rocket barrage on Tuesday.
An AFP correspondent said that despite heavy use of tanks, rocket launchers and artillery, the NTC forces had not advanced from positions held for the past few days in Bani Walid, 170 kilometres southeast of Tripoli.
"There is always incoming missile and artillery fire. We are returning fire with heavy weapons but we are not sending in infantry. We are waiting for reinforcements," Captain Walid Khaimej told AFP.
"Nato is here but is not doing enough. They take out the rocket launchers firing at us, but they are immediately replaced. We need more help from Nato."
Under a UN mandate aimed at protecting civilians, the alliance has been giving air support to the popular revolt that erupted in February and forced Gaddafi out of Tripoli and into hiding last month.
Its daily operational updates suggest it has scaled down the intensity of its strikes: they report attacks on targets in Bani Walid on just one of the past three days.
But Colonel Roland Lavoie, the air campaign's military spokesperson, said: "Nato has not reduced its activity in Libya," noting alliance aircraft had conducted at least 100 sorties per day over the past few days.
"The number of strikes depends on the danger against the civilian population, in conformity with our mandate," Lavoie told AFP in an email.
Interim justice minister Mohammed al-Alagi said in Tripoli, meanwhile, that Libya has issued a summons for Gaddafi’s former prime minister Baghdadi al-Mahmudi, who fled to neighbouring Tunisia.
Mahmudi, premier until the last days of Gaddafi’s regime, was arrested last week on Tunisia's south-western border with Algeria.
A Tunisian court swiftly sentenced him to six months in prison after finding him guilty of illegal entry, but that decision was overruled on Tuesday by a higher court following an appeal.