NTC storms Sirte amid Nato strikes

Hundreds of fighters for Libya’s new rulers thrust into Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte from the east on Sunday, as Nato warplanes pounded the coastal city for a second day.

Flashing V-for-victory signs, the fighters moved into Sirte on pickup trucks and larger lorries, backed by three artillery tanks as they shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), an Agence France-Presse correspondent said.

Other fighters loyal to the National Transitional Council held their ground west of the Mediterranean city, as deadly clashes also raged in the western oasis of Ghadames near the Algerian border.

West of Sirte, National Transitional Council (NTC) forces assembled outside Bani Walid for a fresh assault on the town, the only other remaining Gaddafi redoubt.

As they rolled in from Sirte’s eastern gate, two ambulances sped out with sirens ablaze and other NTC fighters emerged from the Gaddafi bastion where they said there were small arms fire fights.

“We are fighting with Kalashnikovs and small arms around the city centre,” Mar’ee Saleh of the Ali Hassan Jabar Brigade told AFP.

“We are firing at Gaddafi’s men but their return fire is not very strong,” he said as he exited from the eastern gate.

Saleh added that “Nato carried out several strikes today. I saw them myself.”

Fresh assault
Many of the pickup trucks entering the city carried food and water supplies as well as mattresses, an indication the fighters were planning to take positions inside Sirte, the correspondent said.

West of Sirte, NTC forces held their ground saying they had received instructions not to launch a fresh assault into Sirte to allow Nato to carry out operations.

On the political front, NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil said an interim government would be announced next week and that Gaddafi’s internationally “banned weapons” were now under its control.

Earlier, one of the fighters stationed at Sirte’s eastern gate said fighters were looking for land mines.

“We fear that Gaddafi forces have buried land mines on the outskirts of the city. So we are careful. So far today [Sunday] it has been quiet after heavy clashes yesterday [Saturday],” said frontline fighter Abdul Hameed.

Fighters stationed west of Sirte told another AFP correspondent they had been told by the Nato coalition to stay put on Sunday and hold back a planned new assault on the city.

Nato aircraft launched at least a dozen air strikes around Sirte on Sunday morning, a correspondent said.

On Saturday, Nato warplanes blew up 29 armed vehicles, a firing position, two command and control nodes and three ammunition storage facilities in the area, the alliance said in an operational update.

Advanced positions
On Saturday fighters entered Sirte in what appeared to be a pincer movement from the south and the east.

“Our troops went seven kilometres inside through the eastern gate and there were sporadic to sometimes heavy clashes with Gaddafi’s forces,” said Commander Mohammed al-Marimi of the Fakriddin Sallabi Brigade.

Misrata Military Council spokesperson Abdel Ibrahim said seven NTC fighters were killed and 145 wounded.

The fighters used tanks and pickups mounted with anti-aircraft guns to clear roadblocks set up by Gaddafi forces and drove towards Sirte city centre, erecting their own defences in advanced positions.

On a beach road surrounded by craters and pock-marked buildings, a 106mm anti-tank cannon repeatedly pounded Gaddafi positions, backed by a barrage of mortar fire and multiple rocket-launchers.

One Sirte resident who managed to flee early on Sunday said fighting subsided at around 7:00pm on Saturday.

“There are African mercenaries roaming across the city. They are firing at houses with anti-aircraft guns in district one” on the western edge of Sirte, he said, refusing to give his name for security reasons.

He also said he twice saw one of Gaddafi’s sons, Mutassim — once in a command centre in a hospital basement, over the past three weeks.

Humanitarian situation
Front line fighters in Sirte have repeatedly said Mutassim is holed up in its southern outskirts.

Saturday’s assault came after reports of a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in the city of around 75 000.

Nato forces struck at Gaddafi forces after reports emerged from Sirte of “executions, hostage-taking and the calculated targeting of individuals, families and communities within the city,” a coalition statement said.

The assault on Ghadames, 600km south west of Tripoli, came at dawn, killing at least eight NTC fighters and wounding 50, said Muhandes Sirajeddin, deputy chief of the local council.

“The attack began at around 5:30am. Around 100 Gaddafi loyalists, including mercenaries who came from around Algeria [across the border] and groups of Tuareg took part in the fighting,” he said.

Sirajeddin and two other residents said clashes were still under way in Ghadames, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to Roman ruins.

Heavy fighting also raged in Bani Walid, the only other remaining pro-Gaddafi bastion, with NTC fighters coming under fire from inside the town, an AFP correspondent said.

NTC commander Omar Mukhtar said his men are “regrouping” but would not attack on Sunday.

“We are getting ready,” he said, as an AFP correspondent saw five tanks rolling up to the front line.

NTC forces believe that Gaddafi’s most prominent son, Seif al-Islam, is holed up in Bani Walid. “We know exactly where he is,” Mukhtar said. — AFP

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Michael Mainville
AFP Moscow bureau chief.
Jay Deshmukh
Jay Deshmukh
Sudan Bureau Chief for Agence France Presse (AFP) based in Khartoum.

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