What you need to know:
- We are shelling the area and then we will go in on foot, says officer
Libya’s new regime forces were battling block by block towards the centre of Sirte today, eyeing the symbolic prize of finally capturing Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown after a month-long siege.
But Gaddafi diehards were putting up fierce resistance and in their other remaining bastion, Bani Walid, they mounted a fightback, killing 17 National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters.
A column of NTC troops backed by tanks thrust towards the centre of Sirte from positions east along the Mediterranean coast, coming under heavy rocket and small arms fire as they moved forwards house by house.
“We are less than a kilometre and a half from the central square,” said NTC commander Tareq Drisa.
Burned out vehicles littered the streets as NTC tanks and artillery pounded Gaddafi positions in open ground in the Dollar area of the city from a ridge some four kilometres (two and a half miles) inland, which they seized in a major advance on Sunday.
On the third day of what commanders have touted as a final assault, NTC troops captured Sirte’s showpiece conference centre, university campus and hospital on Sunday, AFP correspondents said.
But the military gains came at a heavy price with medics reporting 13 dead and 90 wounded on the western side of the city alone.
The bodies of another four NTC fighters were recovered from the city’s Ibn Sina hospital following its capture from Gaddafi’s forces.
The hospital’s upper floors were blasted after a massive firefight broke out late on Sunday, with intense machinegun and rocket fire. Dr Nabil Lamine told AFP: “It was a holocaust, not a hospital. We had no drugs, no oxygen. We brought people from the upper floors to the corridor on the ground because of the shelling.”
NTC fighters were in no doubt about the likely intensity of the battle ahead for the city centre.
“We are shelling the area and then we will go in on foot and in our trucks,” Ibrahim Mletan told AFP. “It will be very bloody when we go in, because they don’t want to surrender.”
In Bani Walid, a desert oasis 170 kilometres southeast of Tripoli, the military spokesman for Libya’s new leadership said NTC fighters withdrew from forward positions in the town in what he termed a “tactical pullback” after intense fighting on Sunday.
“We lost 17 fighters in fierce clashes on Sunday and our forces have withdrawn from the airport where they had taken control,” said Salem Gheith, head of the NTC military command centre in the capital.
“We’ve received reinforcements from Tripoli and the Nafusa mountains, and we will resume the offensive,” he said.
Yunes Mussa, the NTC commander for the region, announced the capture of the airport on Sunday, before the fightback by pro-Gaddafi forces.
The ferocity of the resistance in Sirte and Bani Walid has surprised the new regime, with NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil admitting the battles were “very vicious.”
Medics say at least 36 NTC fighters have been killed and almost 420 wounded since Friday when they launched a final push on Sirte after several days of Natoair strikes to soften up pro-Gaddafi positions.
Nato said its warplanes struck three armed vehicles in Bani Walid on Sunday.
NTC commanders believe that one of Gaddafi’s sons, Mutassim, is holed up in Sirte and that another, Seif al-Islam, once seen as the former strongman’s successor, is hiding in Bani Walid, possibly with his father. (AFP)