Battle rages for Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte

Troops loyal to Libya’s new rulers intensify military campaign to gain control over Muammar Gaddafi’s stronghold.

Anti-Gaddafi fighters attack pro-Gaddafi forces at the frontline in the center of Sirte October 13, 2011. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani (LIBYA - Tags: CONFLICT MILITARY POLITICS)
Medics say two NTC fighters were killed and another 23 were hurt in the fighting in Sirte [Reuters]

National Transitional Council (NTC) commanders have moved up tanks into the ousted leader’s hometown of Sirte to fire at buildings from close range to try to dislodge the remaining snipers loyal to Muammar Gaddafi who are now surrounded on all sides in one small part of the city.

Die-hard loyalists to the deposed leader have not given up the fight, answering NTC attacks in Sirte with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. An NTC commander said Gaddafi’s besieged forces were no longer using heavier weapons.

“We have control of the whole of the city except neighbourhood ‘Number Two’ where the Gaddafi forces are surrounded,” Khaled Alteir, a field commander in Sirte, said on Thursday.

“This operation is on its dying breath,” said another commander, Colonel Mohammad Aghfeer.

The siege of Sirte, which began after the capital Tripoli fell to the NTC two months ago, has held up Libya’s transition to normality as the country’s new leaders say they will only start building a democratic system after the city is captured.

Green flags, the banner of Gaddafi’s 42-year rule, still fly above many of the buildings in Sirte, but the commander said, the defending forces appeared to have lost their cohesion.

“We’ve noticed now they are fighting every man for himself,” said Baloun Al Sharie, a field commander. “We tried to tell them it’s enough and to give themselves up, but they would not.”

NTC officers say Gaddafi loyalists fear reprisals if they give themselves up.

Some captured fighters have been roughed up by NTC forces and Amnesty International issued a report on Wednesday saying Libya’s new rulers were in danger of repeating human rights abuses commonplace during Muammar Gaddafi’s rule. The NTC said it would look into the report.

Close to the centre of the fighting in Sirte, government forces found 25 corpses wrapped in plastic sheets. They accused Gaddafi militias of carrying out execution-style killings. Five corpses shown to a Reuters team wore civilian clothes, had their hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds to the head.

As the tanks pounded the apartment blocks where Gaddafi’s men are holed up, pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns moved in behind, then infantry armed with AK-47s began their assault.

One field hospital received two NTC dead and 23 wounded on Thursday. One of the dead men had been hit while taking food up to the fighters on the front line, doctors said.

In the skies, NATO aircraft have been carrying out reconnaissance missions and Britain said its jets had bombed and destroyed two pick-up trucks belonging to Gaddafi’s forces in Sirte on Wednesday.

Air corridors

But as the battle for Libya draws towards what the NTC and NATO hope will be a close, both the new government and the Western alliance which helped topple Gaddafi are looking towards a return to normality.

The provisional Libyan government and NATO signed an agreement on Thursday to immediately open air corridors for international civilian flights from Benghazi, and domestic flights between the second city and Tripoli and Misrata.

This is one of the first steps toward NATO lifting its no-fly zone over Libya imposed after Gaddafi began a military assault on civilians protesting his one-man rule.

German Economy Minister Philipp Roesler said 150 wounded Libyans would be treated in Germany. Berlin plans to support Libya with medical supplies and aid and help in training and educating young Libyans, he said.

“We are here because we see the most important raw material of Libya, it is not oil and gas…(it is) the younger people who started the revolution here. They need future and perspective after their victory,” Roesler told a news conference in Tripoli.

Suspicious oil contracts

In another development, Ali Tarhuni, the NTC’s oil minister, vowed that Libya would investigate “every penny” of suspicious oil contracts signed under Gaddafi’s regime, which was responsible for what he called unbelievable” corruption.

“There will be specialised committees that will look into all these contracts and agreements starting with the oil sector,” Tarhuni said, without giving details on contracts or companies.

Libya’s oil production, which collapsed after the uprising in February, is expected to rise to nearly one million barrels per day by April from the current 400,000, Nuri Berruien, the head of the state-run National Oil Company, said.

Source: News Agencies