Making an unannounced visit, US secretary of state praises those who “stood up against a dictator’s aggression”.
|The prolonged battle has seen an arsenal of homemade weapons, such as this armoured bulldozer in Sirte [Reuters]
Libyan interim government fighters have relaunched their offensive on the besieged town of Sirte after being pushed back by die-hard Muammar Gaddafi loyalists holed up in the deposed leader’s hometown.
Grad rockets, artillery and tank fire rained down on Gaddafi positions in the centre of the town on Wednesday as hundreds of National Transitional Council (NTC) troops, who have surrounded the Mediterranean coastal town for weeks, continued their chaotic struggle to snuff out the last pocket of resistance against the revolution that ended Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.
Ali al-Rikabi, an NTC field commander, said fighting was raging in the outer streets of Sirte’s Number Two neighbourhood.
“It is intense and we have exchanges of gunfire,” he said.
Medics at a field hospital in east Sirte said seven fighters were killed and 74 wounded, the AFP news agency reported.
Two other fighters were reported wounded on the western side of the city.
The NTC’s failure to seize Sirte, nearly two months since capturing Tripoli, has raised questions about its ability to exert its authority over the entire country and has postponed the launch of its promised democracy programme.
On Monday NTC forces captured the other main Gaddafi stronghold, the desert town of Bani Walid, where the ousted leader’s loyalists had put up resistance for two months.
NTC forces were poised a few days ago to declare victory in Sirte, but on Tuesday they were forced to retreat in some places under intense fire.
Mahmoud Jibril, Libya’s acting prime minister, said on Wednesday that Gaddafi is believed to be recruiting fighters from other African countries and preparing for a possible insurgency, hoping to destabilise Libya’s new regime.
“Reports have shown that 68 vehicles with at least eight fighters each crossed the Libyan borders to Mali and Gaddafi is hiding in the southern desert,” Jibril told reporters.
The comments reflected fears that Gaddafi will be able to use friendly relations with neighbouring countries cultivated during his more than four decades in power to help him launch a bid to return to power.
He said Gaddafi had made a deal with the Hamada tribe, which roams the borders between Chad, Sudan and Libya, to provide 12,000 fighters “to enter Libya and start the fight.”
Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, also echoed Jibril’s fear during a visit to Tripoli on Tuesday, saying she hoped Gaddafi would be captured or killed.