Libya’s new regime forces were on the verge of taking full control of Moamer Kadhafi’s hometown Sirte after seizing its showpiece conference centre and university from his diehards on Sunday.
National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters also seized control of the Mediterranean city’s hospital and university campus, AFP correspondents said.
The fortress-like Ouagadougou conference centre, constructed to host pan-African summits, has been a major objective of NTC forces since they launched a September 15 offensive on Sirte.
“We control 100 percent of the Ouagadougou centre,” said Mohammed al-Fayad, an NTC military chief, adding the capture “opens the way” for his forces to overrun the city centre.
An AFP correspondent on the spot confirmed the NTC fighters were in control of the landmark complex. “We are ready to take the centre” of Sirte “within a matter of hours,” said Fayad.
“It is only a question of coordination between (Misrata fighters on) the western front and (Benghazi fighters on) the eastern front. We just need time.”
As he spoke, NTC fighters spread throughout the sprawling complex, tearing down portraits of the fugitive Kadhafi and the green flags of his fallen 42-year regime.
They later advanced another kilometre (1,000 yards) north along streets littered with debris and lined by pock-marked buildings towards the heart of the city.
At the war-ravaged centre, giant windows were all blasted in and its metal roof had caved in under the artillery barrage.
“All this was built with the money of Libyans. It’s our money and yet no resident of Sirte was allowed to come here,” said one fighter, sitting back on a sofa.
NTC fighters also took control of the town’s Ibn Sina hospital, whose upper floors were blasted.
A massive firefight broke out near the hospital late on Sunday, with intense machinegun and rocket fire.
Patients’ beds lined ground floor corridors at the hospital. Some were unconscious and some with horrible injuries, most of them young men, an AFP correspondent said.
Osama Swehli Muttawa, an NTC field commander, told AFP: “We took 50 prisoners. They were mostly mercenaries. They were lying in beds pretending to be wounded. Some were wounded. We found Kalashnikov and other weapons under their beds.”
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.”
At the hospital morgue, fighters looked for the bodies of fallen comrades amid a stench of death. “We found a lot of dead bodies, of people we were looking for,” Muttawa said of missing NTC fighters.
At a field hospital on the west side of Sirte, medics told AFP there were nine dead and 88 wounded on Sunday, amid chaotic scenes as ambulances ferried in the wounded and doctors carried out emergency surgery.
One room in the derelict building was used as a makeshift morgue, with bodies wrapped in grey blankets or placed inside white body bags.
The overall NTC casualty toll on Sunday was not yet known.
A day after taking a four-lane avenue into the centre, the NTC forces also seized Sirte’s university and its new campus, a huge site where Kadhafi snipers had been picking them off from unfinished buildings.
“We have taken the university… We have liberated the area from Kadhafi’s dogs,” NTC commander Nasser Zamud said.
“The fighting has been difficult; there were a lot of snipers,” Zamud said of the assault on the university in the city’s southeast.
At a Kadhafi palace about 500 metres (yards) from Ibn Sina, partly destroyed by NATO air raids according to the NTC fighters, a group of men jumped up and down on a four-poster bed.
Despite the celebrations, the battle for Sirte has been costly.
The ferocity of the Kadhafi forces’ resistance in Sirte and their other main bastion, Bani Walid, has surprised the new regime, with NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil admitting the battle was “very vicious.”
Medics say 32 NTC fighters have been killed and almost 420 wounded since Friday, when they launched what they have been calling their final assault on Sirte.
Thousands of civilians were still trapped in the city, and NTC commanders said they have been pacing their advance to evacuate some of those who had not fled and to avoid losses from friendly fire.
On the western front, NTC forces also controlled most of the so-called 700-house complex, but they came under sniper fire as they advanced on Sunday, another AFP correspondent reported.
“We’re waiting for reinforcements to come and then we will move forward,” NTC commander Ahmed Brasali said from a frontline position.
“We were attacked this morning by 10 Kadhafi loyalists on foot; they fired RPGs and Kalashnikovs. We killed them all,” he told AFP.
The gains inside Sirte are seen as crucial by the NTC, which awaits its capture to declare the liberation of the whole of Libya, clearing the way to draw up a timetable for elections.
The council has ruled most of the oil-rich country since its forces overran Tripoli on August 23, forcing Kadhafi and his inner circle to flee.
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, an oasis 170 kilometres (100 miles) southeast of Tripoli. They took control on Sunday of the town’s airport, the NTC said.
And heavy fighting was raging between NTC fighters and Kadhafi loyalists around a kilometre (less than a mile) from the downtown area, which residents have abandoned, according to the military joint command in Tripoli.
The NTC forces have been trying for a month to gain control of Bani Walid.