TRIPOLI // Civilians in Muammar Qaddafi's besieged home town of Sirte are enduring a growing humanitarian crisis.
Electricity is intermittent, food, fuel and medical supplies are running out and residents face random gunfire and indiscriminate bombardments.
Medical workers inside the city say people are dying at the main hospital because it lacks supplies and is often without power to run critical life-saving equipment.
Forces of the National Transitional Council have sought for weeks to dislodge pro-Qaddafi fighters who have holed up in the city, one of two remaining loyalist bastions. The NTC says all remaining pro-Qaddafi forces must be defeated before an interim government can be formed.
That battle has trapped Sirte's inhabitants between a hammer and anvil, with NTC forces around the city exchanging gunfire and artillery barrages with pro-Qaddafi fighters inside.
The NTC declared a two-day ceasefire on Friday to allow civilians to leave, but fleeing residents said shooting in the city had continued over the weekend.
After a morning lull yesterday, NTC forces fired on pro-Qaddafi positions in the city, with four tanks on the eastern front line blasting away for at least two hours. Pro-Qaddafi forces responded with rockets. Hundreds of residents were fleeing in packed vehicles yesterday, in some cases sitting atop their piled belongings.
"There are so many rockets now. Yesterday there were a lot of attacks," said Sirte resident Ali Faraj. "We just could not stay any longer."
As he spoke, NTC fighters checked Mr Faraj's identity and those of the women and children in his car.
While life has largely returned to normal in former battlegrounds such as Benghazi, Tripoli and Misurata, the war is still evident near combat zones.
Travelling east from Tripoli, drivers encounter more frequent checkpoints. In Misurata, itself damaged earlier in the war, hospital staff work around the clock tending to wounded rushed in from Sirte.
As NTC forces tighten their noose on the city, fighting is increasingly sweeping up civilians.
"The problem is that it is random," said one woman fleeing Sirte yesterday who gave her name as Um Ali. "Everybody is hitting us. Why? We are just innocent people."
Meanwhile, constant cuts in electricity and shortages of nearly everything are hindering doctors in Sirte who are trying to care for the injured.
"Doctors start operating, then the power goes," said a man who gave his name as Al Sadiq and said he ran the dialysis unit at Sirte's main hospital.
"I saw a child of 14 die on the operating table because the power went out during the operation," Mr Al Sadiq said.
"It's a dire situation," said Hichem Khadraoui, a worker with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
On Saturday Mr Khadraoui led a team of ICRC workers to Sirte's Ibn Sina hospital to deliver medical supplies and body bags. Hospital staff told the ICRC team that "because of lack of oxygen and fuel for the generator people are dying", he said.
Before Mr Khadraoui and his colleagues could visit the hospital's wards and conduct a full assessment, fighting broke out despite the ICRC having informed both NTC and pro-Qaddafi forces of its team's presence, Mr Khadraoui said.
NTC fighters launched a barrage of rockets, anti-tank cannons and machinegun fire from less than a kilometre from the hospital, while pro-Qaddafi forces answered with mortar and sniper fire.
"Several rockets landed within the hospital buildings while we were there," Mr Khadraoui said. "We saw a lot of indiscriminate fire. I don't know where it was coming from."
Mr Khadraoui's team was forced to retreat but hopes to return. The ICRC has been seeking for months to bring medical aid to Sirte but has been stymied by fighting.
A team from Doctors Without Borders also tried to enter Sirte on Saturday to deliver medical supplies but turned back because of heavy fighting. They had no guarantees that pro-Qaddafi forces would hold their fire.
NTC commanders hope that the fight for Sirte will soon be over. Last week Libya's defence ministry announced that NTC forces had taken control of Sirte's port, military base and airport.
Last week, NTC fighters moved into a residential area and seized a hotel from pro-Qaddafi snipers, said Commander Mustafa Rubaie.
However, pro-Qaddafi forces still possessed "highly sophisticated weapons and a large amount of ammunition" and control strategic positions such as high-rise buildings, Commander Rubaie said.
On Saturday, Col Qaddafi's spokesman Moussa Ibrahim denied earlier reports of his own capture and said that he was travelling with pro-Qaddafi fighters inside Sirte. Mr Ibrahim has claimed that Nato air strikes have killed civilians in Sirte. Nato and NTC leaders deny that and accuse pro-Qaddafi forces of using the city's inhabitants as human shields.
British planes operating in Libya destroyed a supply base for anti-aircraft artillery weapons on Saturday, said Britain's defence ministry.
That operation may be one of Nato's last in Libya, according to US Army General Carter Ham, head of the US's Africa Command.
US military leaders will give Nato ministers their assessment of the situation in Libya later this week, Gen Ham said. Nato may then decide to wind up its mission.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg