|Civilians have been hard-hit as supplies of food, water and medical facilities dwindled due to the fighting [Reuters]
Fighters belonging to Libya's ruling National Transitional Council [NTC] have fought their way, street by street, into the centre of toppled leader Muammar Gaddafi's birthplace, Sirte, after their commanders said the battle for the city was entering its final hours.
On Wednesday, heavy artillery and rocket fire from Gaddafi loyalists that had been keeping NTC fighters pinned down on the outskirts of the city subsided, allowing them to move in.
"More than half the city is under the control of the (anti-Gaddafi) rebels," Adel Al-Hasi, a local NTC commander, said.
"God willing, we will be entering on Friday," Mohammed Ramadan Abul-Kassem, another NTC commander, said.
"You will watch us enter the city of Sirte and we will liberate it from those who are endangering our future state."
Medical workers at a field hospital outside the besieged city said three NTC fighters were killed and 20 others were wounded on Wednesday.
A Reuters reporter near the centre of the city said she could hear the occasional thump of mortars landing near NTC positions, but that pro-Gaddafi forces had now resorted to using small arms as they switched to close-quarter fighting.
The NTC advance took them towards Sirte's government quarter, a grid of expensively built hotels, villas and conference centres where Gaddafi used to host foreign leaders.
Taking Sirte would be of huge importance to Libya's new rulers: dispensing with the biggest pocket of pro-Gaddafi resistance and allowing the interim government to switch its focus on rebuilding works and electoral process.
Civilians have been hard-hit as they had been trapped by the fighting with dwindling supplies of food and water and no proper medical facilities to treat the wounded.
International aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding inside Sirte.
They say people are dying from wounds in the hospital because they cannot be treated properly, while residents are falling ill from malnutrition and drinking tainted water.
Robert Lanknau, an aid worker with the International Medical Corps, said he was working at a field hospital near Sirte that was treating up to 100 civilians a day who had fled the bombardment.
On the Western edge of Sirte, a delegation from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was waiting for a break in the fighting, and agreement from the two sides, to send in two trucks with supplies.
"We are concerned about the civilian population. Our priority concern is care of the wounded and sick. We want to make sure they have proper care," Hishem Khadrawy, an ICRC official, said.
Anger at NATO
Some people have directed their anger at NATO, saying the alliance's aircraft were striking residential areas.
A NATO spokesman said no strikes were carried on Sirte since the weekend and were sticking to their mandate to protect civilians.
"The situation is very difficult and potentially confusing for the civilian people in Sirte at the moment," Roland Lavoie, the spokesman, said in a statement.
"NATO aircraft overhead, while not striking during the close fighting in the city, are continuously conducting surveillance and reconnaissance missions to monitor the situation," he said.
Residents of the city also voiced anger and resentment at the anti-Gaddafi forces, saying they have shelled indiscriminately.
"Let them look for Muammar, but do not kill 50,000 people to change the regime," said a resident who gave his name as al-Fatouri. "It is not worth it that thousands die in Sirte for Muammar. This is what saddens us."
Many people in Sirte are members of Gaddafi's tribe and still support him, testing the commitment by Libya's new rulers to seek reconciliation with all sections of Libyan society, including those that backed Gaddafi.
In another development, a military unit allied to the NTC said it had discovered a mass grave containing the bodies of more than 200 people in Tripoli.
More than a dozen sites have been identified as mass graves since the fall of Gaddafi regime in August.