Libya forces drive on centre of Sirte

2011-10-10 21:24
Sirte - Libya's new regime forces were battling block by block towards the centre of Sirte on Monday, eyeing the symbolic prize of finally capturing Moamer Gaddafi's home town after a month-long siege.

But Gaddafi diehards were putting up fierce resistance and in their other remaining bastion, Bani Walid, they mounted a fight back, killing 17 National Transitional Council fighters.

A column of NTC troops thrust towards central Sirte from positions east along the Mediterranean coast, coming under heavy rocket and small arms fire as they inched forward house by house.

They advanced about a kilometre into the city centre from the south and east by the afternoon, backed by heavy shelling and tanks.

"The revolutionaries are less than one kilometre from the central square. We control about 90% of Sirte," said Makhluf el-Ferjani of the Sirte military council.

Little more than sniper fire was coming back at them, but at least two NTC fighters were killed, an AFP correspondent reported.

"They have nothing left," said NTC fighter Khaled Abu Zakuk.

Burned out vehicles littered the streets as NTC tanks and artillery pounded Gaddafi positions in open ground in the Dollar area of the city from a ridge some four kilometres inland, which they seized in a major advance on Sunday.

On the third day of what commanders have touted as a final assault, NTC troops captured Sirte's showpiece conference centre, university campus and hospital on Sunday, AFP correspondents said.

Chaotic

But the military gains came at a heavy price with medics reporting 13 dead and 90 wounded on the western side of the city alone.

The bodies of another four NTC fighters were recovered from the city's Ibn Sina hospital following its capture from Gaddafi's forces.

The hospital's upper floors were blasted after a massive firefight broke out late on Sunday, with intense machine-gun and rocket fire.

"It's chaotic," said Red Cross spokesperson Dibeh Fakhr, as a team of medics wheeled patients out on beds and shells rocked the area.

A convoy of nine vehicles, including four large trucks, waited outside to ferry the patients away from the war zone, a job the Red Cross hoped to finish on Monday.

"This is not a functioning hospital. The patients need evacuation because the wards have all been hit. There were three doctors here last week, but yesterday there was just one."

The wounded were still on beds in the corridors, all of them men of fighting age whom the NTC fighters accuse of being Gaddafi's loyalists - something they denied.

"They think I was with the Gaddafi fighters but it was just an accident," said Abdullah Mohammed Faraj, a 24-year-old with a stump for a right arm.

Be a man

Beside him was an NTC fighter who said: "Tell the truth. Be a soldier. Be a man."

In Bani Walid, a desert oasis 170km southeast of Tripoli, the military spokesperson for Libya's new leadership said NTC fighters withdrew from forward positions in the town in what he termed a "tactical pullback" after intense fighting on Sunday.

"We lost 17 fighters in fierce clashes on Sunday and our forces have withdrawn from the airport where they had taken control," said Salem Gheith, head of the NTC military command centre in the capital.

"We've received reinforcements from Tripoli and the Nafusa mountains, and we will resume the offensive," he said.

Yunes Mussa, the NTC commander for the region, announced the capture of the airport on Sunday, before the fight back by pro-Gaddafi forces.

The ferocity of the resistance in Sirte and Bani Walid has surprised the new regime, with NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil admitting the battles were "very vicious".

Mutassim in Sirte

At least 38 NTC fighters have been killed and about 420 wounded since Friday when they launched a final push on Sirte after several days of Nato air strikes to soften up pro-Gaddafi positions.

Nato said its warplanes struck three armed vehicles in Bani Walid on Sunday.

NTC commanders believe that one of Gaddafi's sons, Mutassim, is holed up in Sirte and that another, Seif al-Islam, once seen as the former strongman's successor, is hiding in Bani Walid, possibly with his father.

The NTC has been waiting for Sirte's full capture to declare the liberation of the whole of Libya, clearing the way to draw up a timetable for elections.

The council has ruled most of the oil-rich country since its forces overran Tripoli on August 23, forcing Gaddafi and his inner circle to flee.

Read more on:    muammar gaddafi  |  libya  |  north africa  |  uprisings
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