Aid agencies say a humanitarian disaster looms in Sirte as supplies run low amid raging battles [Reuters]

Libya's interim government forces have launched an assault on the coastal city of Sirte in an effort to dislodge fighters loyal to the country's deposed leader.

The prolonged battle for Muammar Gaddafi's hometown, besieged from three fronts, has raised mounting concern for civilians trapped inside the city of about 100,000 people, with each side accusing the other of endangering them.

Cars drove out of Sirte from the early hours of Friday, while shelling and tank fire continued from both sides on the eastern and western fronts.

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Black smoke rose from the centre of the city and NATO jets flew overhead.

Gaddafi loyalists and some civilians have accused NATO air raids and shelling by the forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) of killing civilians.

Both NATO and the NTC deny the accusations. Civilians coming out of Sirte say pro-Gaddafi fighters are executing people they believe to be NTC sympathisers.

More than a month after NTC fighters captured Tripoli, Gaddafi remains on the run, trying to rally resistance to those who ended his 42-year rule.

Humanitarian crisis

Aid agencies said this week that a humanitarian disaster loomed in Sirte amid rising casualties and shrinking supplies of water, electricity and food.

Doctors at a field hospital near the eastern front line said an elderly woman died from malnutrition on Friday morning and they had seen other cases.

Reports say families have not eaten for days and the wounded are unable to be transported to hospitals for treatment.

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Medical sources say even if the wounded do reach hospitals, doctors are unable to tend to their injuries due to lack of power and limited supplies.

The NTC has asked the UN for fuel for ambulances to evacuate its wounded fighters from Sirte, a UN source in Libya told the Reuters news agency on Thursday.

The UN is sending trucks of drinking water for the civilians crammed into vehicles on the road from Sirte, heading either towards Benghazi to the east or Misrata to the west, he added.

But fighting around the city and continuing insecurity around Bani Walid, the other Gaddafi bastion, are preventing the world body from deploying aid workers inside, he said.

"There are two places we'd really like access to, Sirte and Bani Walid, because of concern on the impact of conflict on the civilian population," the UN source in Tripoli said

Balancing act

The NTC is under pressure to strike a balance between a prolonged fight that would delay its efforts to govern and a quick victory which, if too bloody, could worsen regional divisions and embarrass the fledgeling government and its foreign backers.

The NTC says efforts to form a new interim government have been suspended until after the capture of Sirte and Bani Walid.

"There are no negotiations at the moment to form a transitional government after the NTC decided to keep the current formation to facilitate the [country's] affairs until the land is liberated," Mahmoud Jibril, Libya's de facto prime minister, said in Tripoli on Thursday.

"There are two fronts, Sirte and Bani Walid. I hope those two areas would be liberated soon so that we can start forming a new interim government."

Jibril ruled out any role for himself in a future government.

There has been speculation that divisions are preventing the formation of a more inclusive interim government.

Source: Agencies