Forces of Libya’s new regime said they were mopping up the last, increasingly weak and isolated pockets of resistance in Moamer Kahdafi’s hometown on Wednesday, claiming its fall was imminent.
A day after seizing Sirte’s police headquarters, the National Transitional Council forces spent the day closing in from the east and west on the last redoubts of pro-Kadhafi forces.
Hundreds of NTC combatants in dozens of pickups fired rockets from the west of the Mediterranean city, whose seizure will enable the NTC to declare the liberation of Libya and clear the way for an election timetable.
An AFP correspondent said Sirte’s main square and entire waterfront were under NTC control, along with its fortress-like conference centre, university campus and main hospital, all of which the fighters seized on Sunday.
“All our lines are now in place; the area is completely surrounded,” said NTC commander Zubayr Bakush.
Bakush claimed that Kadhafi’s son Mutassim was still in the city commanding the faltering defences along with Abubakr Yunes, a decades-long confidante of the former leader, and ex-education minister Ahmed Ibrahim.
As night fell, an AFP correspondent said dozens of NTC vehicles, their horns honking and jubilant occupants firing into the air, converged on the main square to celebrate.
They later withdrew to spend the night in more secure parts of the city.
“We will finish them off tomorrow; it’s a done deal,” said one, confidently.
While diminishing in scope, fighting continued to shake the city throughout the day.
“There are snipers in the buildings up there,” fighter Basit Divas told AFP earlier, pointing to a neighbourhood of pock-marked villas, before hundreds of NTC troops advanced, supported by heavy weapons fire.
Within hours, the new regime forces had advanced another two kilometres (1.2 miles) and were meeting only small pockets of resistance, with most of the firing in one direction — at the Kadhafi loyalists.
There was some incoming sniper fire as they blasted buildings with RPGs, machineguns and anti-aircraft guns.
NTC soldiers went house to house, clearing each, and sometimes taking prisoners.
In the kitchen of one large villa, half-finished cups of tea sat on a tray. Outside another, a man was on his knees in the courtyard, his hands tied behind his back, pleading with his captors.
“This man had a gun, and two AK-47s. We think he may be from Kadhafi’s operation room,” said Ayub Basina, who identified himself as an NTC doctor.
In one house, NTC forces found 15 Kalashnikovs, seven RPGs and a field radio.
A dozen black prisoners, their hands tied behind their backs, were seen being taken from one house and put aboard a pick-up.
An AFP correspondent reported a fierce firefight around a school where Kadhafi loyalists were putting up strong resistance. He saw at least six bodies and said dozens of fighters had been wounded.
NTC forces then withdrew to bombard the building with mortar fire.
The plight of stranded civilians raised the concerns of Human Rights Watch, which called on both sides to minimise harm to them and ensure that prisoners are treated humanely.
“Commanders on the ground in Sirte need to make sure that their forces protect civilians and allow them to flee the combat zone,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at HRW.
“All prisoners should be treated humanely and transferred to the NTC authorities who can better ensure their safety,” he said in a statement.
The New York-based watchdog said much of Sirte’s population of around 100,000 has already fled, but that an unknown number remain.
The NTC forces began their siege of Sirte on September 15 before launching on Friday what they termed a “final assault” that has seen at least 85 of their number killed and hundreds wounded, according to medics.
NATO warplanes overflew Sirte early on Wednesday without firing, an AFP correspondent reported, as the alliance said in its latest update that it had struck six vehicles in Bani Walid.
Outside that oasis, 170 kilometres (105 miles) southeast of Tripoli, NTC fighters are also gearing for a renewed onslaught on the other remaining bastion of forces loyal to the ousted dictator.
A withdrawal from intense fighting, in what the military called a “tactical pull back” earlier this week, enabled some civilians to flee Bani Walid on Tuesday, said an AFP reporter.
Kadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam, once seen as the former strongman’s successor, is believed to be hiding in Bani Walid, possibly with his father.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said the alliance was close to ending its mission in Libya, but NATO “had no knowledge of the colonel’s whereabouts,” adding that Kadhafi “is not a target of our operation.”
Meanwhile, NTC oil and finance minister Ali Tarhuni said Libya will not award any further oil contracts until a government is formed after elections.
“There are no new contracts in this transitory period for Total or for any company,” he told reporters on the occasion of a visit by an 80-strong French business delegation.
“The only government that can give new concessions in oil is an elected government, and that would be after we have a constitution.”
Libya’s oil production, which collapsed following the uprising in February, is expected to rise from current levels of around 400,000 barrels per day, to nearly one million by April, said Nuri Berruien, president of the state-run National Oil Corp (NOC).
“We are shooting to go back to previous levels of 1.6-1.7 million, hopefully before the end of 2012,” he said.
“Probably in the next two years I would see intensive exploring activities,” Berruien said, adding that such programmes would require “very large investment but the returns are very great.”
The NOC president said the priorities for all future contract negotiations would be how they benefit the Libyan people, and the principle of transparency.
“We had enough of corruption, we had enough of squandering public wealth,” Berruien told the conference, which was attended by French energy firms including Total and GDF Suez.