Libya forces regroup after Sirte setback
Sirte - New regime forces regrouped on Friday for a new push to capture fugitive strongman Moamer Kadhafi's hometown of Sirte after being forced to retreat by pockets of loyalists putting up a dogged resistance.
National Transitional Council (NTC) troops remained in the central police headquarters to which they retreated 2km on Thursday under heavy fire, an AFP correspondent reported.
The defiant Gaddafi diehards in the Dollar and Number Two residential neighbourhoods in northwest Sirte have been staging a fierce last stand that has put paid to NTC hopes of a swift mopping-up operation.
"Yesterday evening, we used artillery cannon to shell the neighbourhoods," Nasser Moghassabi, a frontline field commander with the Martyrs of Free Libya Brigade told AFP.
"The situation today remains the same. We are still surrounding the two neighbourhoods."
He said scouts had been sent in, "and very soon we will decide on the next plan of action."
NTC commanders said on Thursday the Gaddafi loyalists were cornered within about two square kilometres of the city.
Four pro-NTC fighters were killed on Thursday, including two by friendly fire, and another 40 were wounded, mostly by snipers, said Rawad Friwan, a surgeon at a field hospital on Sirte's western outskirts.
"There are still 500 pro-Gaddafi fighters in Sirte and our forces today arrested 15" of them, said Fayisal Ahmed Bringo, a new regime fighter.
NTC field commander Beloun al-Shaari of the Martyrs of the Mountains Brigade told AFP the strategy was "to close in inch by inch".
"Around 800 to 1 000 people are still in the area. Many of them are civilians which is making it a bit difficult for us to launch a big attack, but God willing, by tomorrow [Friday] we should be in control of that area," he said.
Sirte is a key goal for Libya's new leaders who have said they will not proclaim the country's liberation and begin preparing for the transition to an elected government until the city has fallen.
The new regime began its siege of Sirte on September 15 before launching what it termed a "final assault" on Friday of last week that has seen at least 95 of its fighters killed and hundreds wounded, according to medics.
NTC forces have encircled Gaddafi loyalists after seizing Sirte's waterfront, its showpiece conference centre, university, hospital and main square.
A top adviser of NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, meanwhile, backtracked on his announcement that they had captured Gaddafi’s feared son and national security chief Mutassim in Sirte, after it was denied by military commanders.
"There was some confusion about the reports of Mutassim's capture," Abdelkarim Bizama said. "As soon as we have confirmation, there will be an official announcement of his arrest."
However, new regime fighters said they did capture the Gaddafi regime's top cleric as he tried to flee Sirte on Wednesday with his beard shaved off.
Khaled Tantoosh, Libya's mufti under Gaddafi, made broadcasts in his support through the long uprising that ended the despot's 42-year rule.
Meanwhile, NTC oil minister Ali Tarhuni vowed Libya would investigate "every penny" of suspect oil contracts signed under Gaddafi’s regime, which was responsible for what he called "unbelievable" corruption.
"There will be specialised committees that will look into all these contracts and agreements, starting with the oil sector," Tarhuni said, without giving details on contracts or companies.
Libya's oil production, which collapsed after the uprising in February, is expected to rise to nearly one million barrels per day by April from the current 400 000, said Nuri Berruien, head of the state-run National Oil Company.