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24 Sep 2011 20:02
Libyan interim government forces backed by Nato warplanes swarmed into Muammar Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte on Saturday but encountered heavy sniper fire as they tried to win control of one of the deposed leader’s last strongholds.
Black smoke billowed over Sirte as National Transitional Council (NTC) forces massed in Zafran Square about 1km from the centre of the Mediterranean coastal town.
Gunfire could be heard from the town centre as the forces moved tanks and mortars to the square. Pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns and loaded with NTC fighters raced into the town and ambulances hurtled back and forth ferrying casualties.
“They have snipers above the mosques, above the buildings.
They’re using the houses and public buildings,” NTC fighter El-Tohamy Abuzein told Reuters from his position in Zafran Square.
Nato, whose warplanes played a vital role in the six-month war that toppled Gaddafi, said its planes hit a number of targets in Sirte in the last 24 hours, including an ammunition depot and an anti-aircraft gun.
It said in a statement the air attacks had been mounted to protect civilians from Gaddafi forces inside the town.
“Among the reports emerging from Sirte are executions, hostage-taking, and the calculated targeting of individuals, families, and communities within the city,” Nato said.
Previously, NTC forces had retreated from Sirte and the other final Gaddafi stronghold, Bani Walid, after poorly organised assaults met fierce resistance from his loyalists.
Though NTC forces have tightened their grip in the past few days on southern oasis towns which sided with Gaddafi, that progress has been overshadowed by unsuccessful efforts to take the last strongholds.
NTC commanders say their advance on Sirte has been hampered by the presence of large numbers of civilians, many of whom have fled in the past week.
A Gaddafi spokesperson has accused Nato of killing several hundred civilians with its strikes on Sirte.
Taking Sirte would be a huge boost for the NTC as it tries to establish credibility and a devastating blow for Gaddafi, who is still widely believed to be on the run inside Libya.
‘Forbidden’ weapons found
NTC leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said on Saturday interim government forces had found suspected internationally banned weapons near the towns of Sabha and Wadan, but he gave no details about them.
“There are weapons believed to be internationally forbidden, and they are under our control,” he told a news conference at the NTC’s headquarters in its eastern Benghazi base.
“We will seek help from local experts and the international community to get rid of these weapons in a suitable way.”
The NTC, the political leadership of the rebel movement which rose up against Gaddafi’s 42-year-rule and drove him from power with support from the West and several Arab nations, faces a challenge in trying to impose its authority across Libya.
It said last week it would move to Tripoli only after its forces were in full control of Libyan territory, contradicting an earlier pledge to move the interim administration from Benghazi around mid-September.
In the fighting for Sirte, Reuters journalists said NTC fighters had captured its strategically vital eastern gate, 50km from the town. NTC forces had come under heavy rocket fire from just behind the gate for more than a week.
“The gate is very symbolic for us becaue it’s very close to Sirte and it has raised our moral,” NTC fighter Ahmed Khairy told Reuters, as his comrades draped the new Libyan flag over its arches and shouted: “God is greatest”.
Identity cards that NTC fighters said were left behind by pro-Gaddafi fighters littered the ground at the gate. Most were owned by Libyan nationals but several belonged to Nigerians.
NTC officials have said Gaddafi used mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa to bolster his ranks during the war.
Tanks were seen moving beyond the gate towards Sirte.
“We are coming for you, wild-haired one,” fighters chanted, referring to Gaddafi.
On Thursday, the NTC said it had taken full control of Sabha, which was the traditional base for Gaddafi’s own tribe. About 800km south of Tripoli, it had been occupied by fighters loyal to him.
The NTC says it also controls Jufra, to the north-east of Sabha, and the nearby oasis towns of Sokna, Waddan and Houn.
The manhunt for Gaddafi, who has been in hiding for weeks occasionally issuing audio messages through Syrian-based Arrai TV, is drawing closer to its target, NTC officials say.
The interim government forces suffer from lack of organisation. They operate in disparate units based on their home towns, with little overall command. - Reuters
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