New regime forces have suffered heavy losses in the street-by-street battle for Moamer Kadhafi’s hometown of Sirte as the deposed despot’s loyalists put up fierce resistance, medics said on Sunday.
The fighters loyal to the ruling National Transitional Council have gradually forced back Kadhafi diehards in Sirte since launching their bid on Friday to take full control of the Mediterranean city.
And as they inched forward and squeezed Kadhafi loyalists into an ever tighter net, the head of the ruling National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, admitted the fight was “very vicious”.
“Our fighters today still have to deal with snipers in high positions,” Abdel Jalil told a joint news conference in Tripoli late Saturday with visiting British Defence Secretary Liam Fox and Italian counterpart Ignazio La Russa.
Medics said six NTC fighters were killed and 99 wounded on Saturday, taking the toll to 23 dead and almost 330 wounded since they launched what they are calling their final assault on the Kadhafi bastion.
Thousands of civilians are still trapped in the former Libyan leader’s birthplace, and NTC commanders said they were pacing their advance to evacuate some of those who had not fled and to avoid losses from friendly fire.
One resident, Nasser Hamid, who was fleeing with his wife, three children and niece, said his family managed sneak out in their loaded car under the cover of dark early on Sunday.
“Our flat was destroyed by machinegun fire. We stayed in the stairwell. The children were upset because their toys were destroyed,” Hamid told AFP.
“We waited so long because the Kadhafi loyalists said if we left, they would never let us come back.”
His wife Salima Ali Omar said however that the forces loyal to the old regime appeared to be fighting a losing battle.
“The (Kadhafi) volunteers say they are fed up, they don’t want to fight any more. They are throwing their guns in the rubbish bins,” she said.
The National Transitional Council says Sirte’s fall is vital to formally declaring liberation and setting a timeline for democratic elections.
Forces from Libya’s interim regime scored a strategic goal on Saturday, seizing a four-lane avenue which opens the way to a final assault on a key base of Kadhafi’s troops.
Attacking from the east, NTC fighters seized the road to the Ouagadougou conference centre, a key base of pro-Kadhafi fighters still holding out after days of heavy pounding by NTC tank, cannon and rocket fire and ground assaults.
The advancing forces reached within between 500 metres and one kilometre of the centre and the nearby university, as Kadhafi loyalists responded with sporadic mortar and small arms fire, a correspondent said.
Naji Mismari, an NTC commander, said several Kadhafi loyalists were killed but without giving a number. “Their corpses are still in the houses,” he said, adding that 17 trapped families were evacuated.
On the western front, fighting concentrated on the so-called 700-house complex where NTC forces fired RPGs and machineguns while Kadhafi loyalists used snipers and mortars.
“A sniper hit one of my men and the bullet went right through his head, killing him,” said fighter Nabil Meftah. “Now the snipers are in the tall buildings further into the city.”
With the NTC awaiting the capture of Sirte to declare the liberation of the whole of Libya, clearing the way to draw up a timetable for elections, its fighters resumed the assault earlier on Saturday after a sandstorm eased.
The council has ruled most of the oil-rich country since its forces overran Tripoli on August 23, forcing Kadhafi and his inner circle on the run.
NTC commanders believe that one of Kadhafi’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.
New regime fighters have been stationed for weeks outside Bani Walid, a Saharan oasis 170 kilometres (100 miles) southeast of Tripoli, and the frustration is beginning to show.
“I want to fight but I am awaiting orders,” said a young man at a mosque some 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Bani Walid which serves as a base for the NTC forces.
Field commander Yusef al-Sharif insists that the campaign for Bani Walid is progressing.
“Kadhafi’s men have left Bani Walid, they are fighting 10 kilometres (six miles) from the city centre,” he said.
“We control 90 percent of the sector. We just have to push the pro-Kadhafi guys out of the outskirts and tackle the snipers.”