Streams of civilians fled Moamer Kadhafi’s besieged home town of Sirte as battles raged Sunday for control of the fugitive strongman’s bastion where the Red Cross has warned of a medical emergency.
An AFP reporter at a mosque field hospital west of the city said hundreds of Sirte residents were fleeing in packed vehicles, with some people sitting on top of possessions piled high in the rear of pick-ups.
“There are so many rockets now. Yesterday there were a lot of attacks. We just could not stay any longer,” Ali Faraj said as a National Transitional Council fighter checked his identity and those of women and children crammed in his car.
A Red Cross team, which delivered desperately needed supplies to medics in the besieged coastal city on Saturday, said the hospital had come under rocket fire as new regime forces stepped up their assault on Kadhafi diehards.
A large force of NTC fighters pushed in from the south to lay siege to the Ouagadougou Conference Centre, a showpiece venue close to the Ibn Sina hospital and where Kadhafi hosted the launch of the African Union.
Intense exchanges raged for at least two hours despite pleas from the Red Crescent for a lull while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team made its delivery on Saturday, NTC fighters said.
“It’s a dire situation,” ICRC team leader Hichem Khadhraoui told AFP.
Staff at the Ibn Sina hospital told the team that “because of lack of oxygen and fuel for the generator, people are dying.”
“Several rockets landed within the hospital buildings while we were there. We saw a lot of indiscriminate fire. I don’t know where it was coming from,” Khadhraoui added.
After the ICRC team went in, NTC fighters launched a ferocious attack with rockets, anti-tank cannons and machinegun fire from a position less than a kilometre (half a mile) from the hospital.
Kadhafi loyalists responded with mortar and sniper fire.
US Senator John McCain on Sunday called for Washington to send urgent medical aid to help the thousands of people wounded in Libya.
“They’ve got thousands and thousands of wounded. They say that they’ve lost 25,000 people killed, 3,000 have been maimed, 60,000 injured. That’s their government figures,” McCain told CBS television’s “Face the Nation” programme.
“We should be helping them,” said the influential US lawmaker.
On Sunday, after a morning lull, NTC forces opened up on Kadhafi positions in the centre of Sirte from the northeast using heavy weapons including tanks, an AFP correspondent reported.
There was steady shelling from NTC forces on the eastern front line, with four tanks seen targeting the city for at least two hours. NTC positions in the area were also facing regular incoming rocket attacks from pro-Kadhafi forces.
Thick smoke was billowing over the skies of the eastern front as the two sides hit each other.
“Kadhafi forces are firing Grad rockets at us and they have also deployed snipers. We are responding by shelling their positions with tanks and firing using machineguns,” said Radi Laguri from the Omar Mukhtar Tanks brigade deployed at the eastern front line.
Wanis Abidi, a doctor at an NTC field hospital near the front line, said 15 wounded fighters were brought in Sunday.
“Four fighters were also killed in friendly fire. Two groups of fighters fired at each other mistakenly because of lack of communication,” Abidi told AFP, speaking in English.
An AFP correspondent also witnessed NATO air strikes on the city.
The alliance said its planes on Saturday hit a command and control node, an infantry and anti-aircraft artillery staging area, two armed vehicles, four armoured infantry vehicles and a tank in and around Sirte.
Hundreds of vehicles also streamed out of Sirte on the eastern front during the lull early on Sunday.
One man leaving with his family who gave his name only as Muftah said: “The situation is absolutely pathetic, especially in the hospitals. We have no oxygen, no medicines. Wounded people die even before reaching the hospital.”
On the southern outskirts of Sirte, smoke was seen rising on Sunday from the village of Abu Hadi where Kadhafi was born, an AFP correspondent said, as NTC fighters said NATO air strikes were hitting the area.
“There are a few Kadhafi fighters still in there. NATO asked us to pull back” so they could launch air strikes, said fighter Masoud Jema.
Amid the conflict, at least 10,000 missiles are unaccounted for in Libya, a senior NATO official has admitted according to a German media report on Sunday, amid fears the weapons could fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda.
News weekly Der Spiegel reported on its website that Admiral Giampaolo di Paola, who chairs the committee of NATO military chiefs, held a secret briefing for German MPs in which he expressed the alliance’s concerns.
The missiles present “a serious threat to civil aviation,” the Italian admiral reportedly said.