Residents flee Sirte during lull in fighting

NTC announces 48-hour suspension in fighting, allowing many to escape shortages and insecurity in Gaddafi's hometown.

    Hundreds of residents of Sirte are fleeing the coastal town after the National Transitional Council (NTC) announced a 48-hour suspension in fighting to capture toppled leader Muammar Gaddafi's hometown.

    A long queue of cars jammed the roads leading out of Sirte on Sunday as civilians sought to escape a worsening humanitarian situation in the town.

    Residents fleeing the town of around 100,000 say that those still trapped inside are running low on food and supplies, enduring NTC and NATO shelling as well as intimidation from forces loyal to Gaddafi who are trying to prevent some people from leaving.

    NTC fighters in Sirte told the Reuters news agency that NATO planes had dropped flyers urging civilians to flee the fighting.

    Fighting has continued in Sirte, despite NTC commanders claiming for more than two weeks that they are on the verge of wresting control of one of Gaddafi's last remaining strongholds.

    Last week, the NTC's defence ministry said that Sirte's port, airport and military base were all under the control of its forces.

    On Saturday, aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who entered the town to deliver supplies could not visit the main Ibn Sina Hospital because of shooting.

    One family of four was killed by a rocket strike on Saturday while trying to leave, Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr reported on Sunday.

    "One nurse escaping with her family this morning said that medical staff couldn't reach [Ibn Sina] hospital and couldn't perform operations," she said. "Residents say conditions are dire and people are dying simply because they don't have any basic medical supplies."

    Red Cross aid

    A truck carrying supplies and a car carrying European ICRC workers were allowed to pass checkpoints manned by NTC fighters on Saturday.

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    The ICRC delivered medical kits for treating up to 200 people wounded in the fighting for Sirte, as well as 400 litres of fuel to run hospital generators, the organisation said.

    However, a team of four aid workers, who also had security clearance from pro-Gaddafi forces, were not able to go inside the hospital due to heavy gunfire, the spokesman said.

    "They went to the hospital but were not able to see patients, they didn't go into the wards," Marcal Izard said.

    Doctors at the hospital - which has no power - told the aid workers there were 200 patients inside.

    "The conditions under which medical personnel have had to work over the past weeks have been extremely difficult," said Hichem Khadraoui, who headed the operation.

    "The hospital is facing a huge influx of patients, medical supplies are running out and there is a desperate need for oxygen. On top of that, the water reservoir has been damaged."

    'New interim cabinet'

    In a statement, the ICRC reminded all parties of their "obligation under international humanitarian law to take all possible measures of precaution in order to spare civilian lives and allow safe access for medical personnel".

    Musatafa al-Rubaie, an NTC commander, told the Associated Press news agency that even though his fighters had surrounded Sirte from all sides, a path out had been left for civilians who wanted to leave.

    After weeks of fighting Gaddafi's loyalists inside Sirte, the fighters now hold positions about 5km from the city centre, he said.

    Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has learned that at least three positions have now been assigned in Libya's interim cabinet.

    Mahmoud Jibril, the chairman of the NTC's executive committee, is expected to be confirmed as the head of the new interim government.

    Ali Tarhouni, the interim oil and finance minister, will be Jibril's deputy prime minister.

    And Salem Joha, an NTC commander in Misrata, is most likely to be appointed as the new defence minister.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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