The forces of Libya’s new leadership said Thursday they had entered fugitive Moamer Kadhafi’s hometown, as David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy visited a “free Libya” and were hailed as heroes.
“Misrata’s thwar (fighters) arrived at the Al-Gharbiyat Bridge inside Sirte,” the Misrata Military Council said in a statement, even as the British premier and French president were being mobbed in the eastern city of Benghazi.
On the first visit by foreign leaders to Libya since Kadhafi was toppled, Cameron and Sarkozy flew to Tripoli in the morning and then later to Benghazi in the east, bastion of the rebellion against the long-time despot.
Their historic visit coincided with an assault on Sirte by battle-hardened fighters, who had set off in a 900-vehicle convoy from Misrata early Thursday before splitting at the crossroads town of Abu Qurin to form a pincer movement.
“Our revolutionaries have entered Sirte today on three main axes,” the military council statement said, adding later that they had reached the city centre.
The later statement said Misrata fighters now controlled “the entrances to Sirte city” and were beginning “the process of combing.”
A spokesman for the convoy confirmed that the pro-NTC troops had entered Sirte.
“I confirm our forces are in Sirte, it is a big force,” said Fathi Bashaga.
“There is still resistance but our fighters will be able to overcome it,” the spokesman told an AFP correspondent in Wadi Bey, a desert town where part of the Sirte-bound convoy was held up in a battle with Kadhafi loyalists.
“They are attacking us with 40- and 43-mm mortars and all kinds of weapons.”
The military said Misrata hospital had so far received “one martyr and five wounded” from the fight in Sirte, based on initial reports.
Dr Ibrahim Garta said there were 20 NTC wounded and one dead.
Pro-NTC forces had earlier raised their flag on the outskirts of Sirte, the military said.
“Misrata’s thwar at a distance of 3 km from the Sirte — Independence flag flying over the last petrol station before the city,” the Military Council said in an English statement, referring to the new regime’s forces.
“We are turning the tables on Kadhafi. We were attacked in Misrata on three fronts, and now we’re going to attack Sirte on three fronts,” Fawzy Sawawy, head of the Mountains Brigade, told AFP.
Their task appeared to have been made easier by NATO air strikes.
NATO said that on Wednesday it had struck a command and control node, a military vehicle storage facility, four radar systems and two surface-to-air missile systems in the Sirte area.
Around 15 percent of Kadhafi’s forces are still operational, the alliance said.
General Vincent Tesniere said in a teleconference from Italy that Kadhafi’s remaining forces were concentrated in a zone stretching from Tripoli to Sabha in the south and to Sirte.
Cameron and Sarkozy were welcomed in Benghazi as conquering heroes.
“It is great to be in a free Benghazi and in a free Libya,” Cameron said as jubilant crowds cheered them, flashing V-for-victory signs.
“The people of Britain salute your courage.”
“Your city was an inspiration to the world,” Cameron added. “Colonel Kadhafi said he would hunt you like rats but you show the courage of lions.”
Sarkozy said: “Friends in Benghazi we ask one thing. We believe in a united Libya, not a divided Libya.”
“You wanted peace, you wanted liberty, you want economic progress. France, Great Britain and Europe will be on the side of the Libyan people,” he said.
Before flying to Benghazi, Cameron at a joint news conference in Tripoli pledged help to bring the fugitive Kadhafi to book.
“We must keep on with the NATO mission until civilians are all protected and until this work is finished,” he said.
“We will help you to find Kadhafi and to bring him to justice.”
Sarkozy said the toppled despot remained a “danger” and that there was a “job to finish” in eliminating his forces’ remaining strongholds.
Sarkozy also insisted there was “no ulterior motive” in Western assistance to the new Libya.
“We did what we did because we thought it was right,” he declared.
Cameron and Sarkozy, whose forces spearheaded the NATO air war that helped topple Kadhafi, are immensely popular among ordinary Libyans for their role in ending the fugitive strongman’s 42 years of iron-fisted rule.
Cameron said NATO would continue its UN-mandated air operations until Kadhafi’s remaining redoubts are neutralised.
“This work isn’t finished yet. There are still parts of Libya under Kadhafi control,” he said.
“And the message I think to Kadhafi and all those still holding arms on his behalf is it is over. Give up. The mercenaries should go home.
“Those who still think Kadhafi has any part in any part of government of any part of this country should forget it. He doesn’t. It is time for him to give himself up.”
In Tripoli, Cameron and Sarkozy met NTC head Mustafa Abdel Jalil amid a massive security operation.
There were roadblocks along the road from Metiga airport on Tripoli’s eastern outskirts to the city-centre hotel where the two leaders held their talks, cordoned off by French-backed local forces.
The two visiting leaders also visited the Tripoli Medical Centre where jubilant crowds of medical staff thronged to shake their hands, chanting: “Thank you, thank you.”
Cameron said Britain would release 600 million pounds ($950 million, 690 million euros) in Libyan assets as part of a series of measures aimed at supporting Libya’s new authorities.
He also said Britain would release another 12 billion pounds in frozen Kadhafi regime assets as soon as the UN Security Council approved a draft resolution that Britain and France are to put forward on Friday.
Japan has also decided to release part of the $4.4 billion of frozen Libyan assets, Kyodo news agency reported.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr also arrived in Tripoli Thursday, an official in the Libyan capital said on condition of anonymity. He said Amr met NTC number two Mahmud Jibril and other officials.
Ahead of his trip, the foreign ministry in Cairo said it would be the first visit by an Arab official since the “victory” of the Libyan revolution.