|The two sides battled with automatic weapons after loyalist troops tried to break through the frontline [Reuters]
Toppled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has called on Libyans to take to the streets and wage a campaign of civil disobedience against the country's new leaders.
Gaddafi, in a recorded audio broadcast on a Syria-based TV, said on Thursday the National Transitional Council [NTC] had no legitimacy because it was not nominated or appointed by the Libyan people.
He called on his countrymen to "go out in new million-man marches in all cities and villages and oases".
"Be courageous, rise up, go out in the streets," he said. "Raise the green flag in the skies ... the conditions in Libya are unbearable."
It is not clear when the message was recorded, but Gaddafi warned leaders of the developing world they could face the same fate as him.
It was not possible to verify his identity owing to the poor quality audio broadcast on Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece of his resistance. It was the first word from the fugitive leader in just over two weeks.
Gaddafi has made several speeches on Al-Rai TV as he tries to rally supporters, who are still waging fierce resistance in his besieged hometown of Sirte, the town of Bani Walid southeast of Tripoli and pockets in the south.
Gaddafi loyalists fightback
Meanwhile, forces loyal to Gaddafi have launched a bid to break a siege by NTC fighters in Sirte, with heavy sniper fire and intense fighting.
The fighting on the northeastern frontline of Sirte began when the toppled leader's loyalists advanced several hundred metres on Thursday morning under the cover of darkness, fighters from the NTC said.
"There was a lot of movement during the night; their snipers advanced here and there," an NTC fighter told the AFP news agency.
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Sirte, 400km southeast of Tripoli, is the most important of the pro-Gaddafi cities that are still holding out against Libya's new rulers, and its defenders have put up a fierce resistance, with the two sides trading artillery, tank and mortar shelling.
Following the attempted break-out by Gaddafi loyalists on Thursday, the two sides battled with automatic weapons along the road leading from a luxury hotel on the seaside, an area of the town that has been under the control of the NTC fighters for the past week.
On Wednesday, the road remained outside the reach of Gaddafi's units.
"They (snipers) advance and fall back, constantly changing position. They are using this tactic to make us believe they are advancing towards us and to relieve pressure (on themselves)," NTC officer Nagib Mismari said.
Several NTC fighters suggest that the loyalists are trying to breach the opposition siege to extricate one of their leaders, amid reports that one of the ousted leader's sons, Mutassim, remains in Sirte, commanding loyalist operations from the town's main hospital.
NTC forces have besieged Sirte since September 15 but have not managed to penetrate the heart of the city because of fierce resistance.
An AFP correspondent on the western front said 200-300 NTC fighters were in open ground about 1.5 kilometres south of the Ouagadougou conference centre, firing into the city with tanks and missiles, and receiving mortar fire in return, but had made no ground assault.
The NTC has set up a new transparency group to hunt for the country's missing billions [Al Jazeera]
NTC field commander Salah al-Jabo said his men were trying to evacuate the Ibn Sina hospital near the Ouagadougou centre, which he said he believes may be one of the pro-Gaddafi fighters' bases.
Jabo estimated there were only around 800 pro-Gaddafi fighters left in the entire city, and that the area under their control had been reduced to around 20 square kilometres.
At the same time he said there were only about 400 civilians left in Sirte.
That figure was impossible to confirm, but the reporter said that only a trickle of refugees had come out on Thursday and the previous day, compared with dozens if not hundreds of cars in previous days.
Many among the thousands of residents who have escaped complained that the biggest danger was not Gaddafi loyalists but the bombs that drop from the sky and the ones the NTC fighters lob into their Mediterranean port city.
International aid workers also say NATO bombing is sometimes doing the opposite of what it is supposed to do in the city that was home to around 100,000 people before the Libyan revolution kicked off in February.
When asked if NATO was fulfilling its mission to protect civilians, one aid worker, who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak publicly, replied: "It wouldn't seem so."
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"There's a lot of indiscriminate fire," he said, adding that many residents and doctors he had spoken to had complained of the deadly results of NATO air strikes.
NATO has regularly rejected accusations by the Gaddafi government that the bloc killed innocent civilians.
In the meantime, NATO defence ministers discussed the prospects of wrapping up the mission during two days of talks in Brussels, with officials insisting the campaign will continue as long as Gaddafi forces pose a threat to civilians.
"Sirte is extremely symbolic. But it is important that we no longer have pockets of resistance," Gerard Longuet, the French defence minister, said.
"We will stop when we no longer identify a resistance prohibiting the normal functioning of a state," he said. "Whether Gaddafi disappears from the scene is important, but it's not enough."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies