|NTC forces called in tanks into Sirte on Tuesday, and say they will assault the town with heavy weapons [Reuters]
Seven people have been killed and at least 40 wounded as Libya's National Transitional Council forces launched a fresh assault on Sirte, the hometown of former ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
The dead include two NTC commanders who were shot by snipers in fighting near Sirte's port on Tuesday, according to medical officials at a field hospital.
NTC fighters are close to the main roundabout in the east of the city, but snipers continue to be their biggest hurdle, Al Jazeera's Sue Turton reported from outside the city.
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Reinforcements were sent in for the anti-Gaddafi forces on Tuesday, including two tanks and about a dozen trucks carrying infantry.
Heavy artillery and tanks were moved on Tuesday afternoon to new positions by NTC forces, in an attempt to combat rocket attacks by pro-Gaddafi forces. Revolutionary forces say they are planning an assault with heavy weapons on the city, but they are currently allowing families to leave.
An NTC commander said that casualties were high in Tuesday's assault as many of the fighters were not familiar with the city, and "faced heavy fire from Gaddafi's forces".
Fateh Marimri, an NTC fighter who left Sirte via its eastern gate, told the AFP news agency that clashes had been taking place near the Mahari Hotel in the city.
"There is intense fighting between us and them. They are using heavy weapons but we are not as we want to cause minimum damage to civilians," Marimri said.
Mustafa bin Dardef, commander of the NTC's Zintan Brigade, said that anti-Gaddafi forces were now "controlling the port" in the east of the city.
Sirte's port and university lie on the northeastern side of the city, while Gaddafi's compound and military bunkers are in the centre.
Even as fighting raged on the eastern front, Touhami Zayani, the commander of the NTC's al-Farouk Brigade on the western edge of Sirte, told the Reuters news agency that he had been contacted by an elder from Gaddafi's tribe regarding a possible truce.
"He called me [on my satellite phone] and said we are looking for a safe passage for the families and for the militia to leave the city," he said.
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Zayani said that he had agreed to allow families from Gaddafi's tribe, who make up the majority of Sirte's population, to leave, but was still negotiating terms for the surrender of armed Gaddafi loyalists.
"We didn't really get into details and we didn't talk much about how they will leave but I think the scenario will be that they have to give up their weapons," Zayani said.
NTC soldiers on the eastern front were not enthusiastic about possible negotiations.
Asked about the possibility of a truce with pro-Gaddafi forces, Omar al-Qatrany, an NTC commander on the eastern front line said: "Those people don't want to negotiate and we don't care about them any more. Our main concern is to evacuate families out of Sirte and then we will bomb the city."
The NTC forces assault on Bani Walid, the other major population centre that they are attempting to bring under their control, has stalled, meanwhile, due to fierce resistance from pro-Gaddafi forces.
"NTC fighters pulled out from some areas they control in Bani Walid due to the intensity of fire," said Abdallah Kenshil, the new government's chief negotiator in abortive efforts to broker the town's surrender.
Humanitarian agencies, meanwhile, continue to express alarm at the situation for civilians in Sirte.
"Our main worry is the people being displaced because of the fighting," said Jafar Vishtawi, a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), near Sirte.
The ICRC has said that conditions in the city are deteriorating, and they are trying to negotiate in order to be able to supply hospitals with medical supplies.
"There's no food, no electricity; we were eating just bread," said Saraj al-Tuweish, who got out with his extended family of about 60 people on Tuesday.
"I've been trying for 10 days to get out and every time the army forced us back," Tuweish told AFP.
"We would go the checkpoint and they would refuse, they would shoot in the air. Today we used a dirt road early in the morning and we managed to escape."
Families that are fleeing the city are being accomodated in Brega or Ajdabiya, Al Jazeera's Turton reported.
"We have medicines but no nurses to treat the constant flow of patients, mainly children, suffering from vomiting and gastrointestinal diseases," said Dr Valentina Rybakova, who is working at a clinic in the town of Harawa, 40km east of Sirte.
"This is a big humanitarian crisis. We are trying to get help from everybody but the main problem is that these people have no access to clean drinking water," she said.
In the remote southern city of Sabha, meanwhile, where fighting has continued between pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces Ali al-Tarhouni, the NTC's oil and finance minister, delivered $16 million to the central bank in a bid to aid residents.
Gaddafi family warned
Sirte is one of the last bastions of support for the deposed Libyan leader, and has been encircled by anti-Gaddafi forces for several days. NATO warplanes have also been bombarding the city. Taking the city, which is located about 450km east of Tripoli, would bring Libya's new rulers closer to gaining control over the whole country.
Further, rebel fighters say that some members of Gaddafi's family remain in the city.
On Tuesday, a Syria-based television station broadcast footage of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Muammar Gaddafi's son. Dated September 20, the footage showed him rallying followers at an undisclosed location.
"This land is the land of your forefathers. Don't hand it over," Saif al-Islam shouted, according to the footage broadcast by Arrai TV.
In neighbouring Algeria, meanwhile, the government has ordered members of Gaddafi's family who have sought exile in the country to stay out of politics. The move comes after Aisha, one of the deposed leader's daughters, told the media that her father was continuing his fight to remain in power.
"It is clear that the message has been passed on to Aisha and the other members of the family that they should, from now on, respect their status as guests in Algeria and remove themselves completely from any political action," Mourad Medelci, the Algerian Foreign Minister, was quoted as saying by the official APS news agency.
He also said that plans are under way for Algeria to work closely with Libya's new NTC-led government.
Aisha, her brothers Hannibal and Mohammed, their mother Safia and several other family members fled Libya for Algeria in August.
In a separate development, a Tunisian court of appeal on Tuesday freed Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi, Gaddafi's former prime minister, after he had earlier been sentenced to six months in jail. Al-Mahmoudi had earlier been arrested at Tunisia's border with Algeria.
Tunisian authorities say that they have not so far received any request from the NTC to extradite al-Mahmoudi.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies