SIRTE // Columns of heavily armed fighters loyal to Libya's new leaders surged into Moammar Qaddafi's hometown Sirte on Friday, with some combatants claiming that half the Mediterranean city is under their control.
An AFP correspondent said the fighting force comprised dozens of pick-up trucks fitted with heavy machine guns and flanked by three tanks.
The assault came after National Transitional Council (NTC) forces suffered heavy losses when they launched a first attack on the fugitive Qaddafi's coastal bastion before sunset on Thursday, with 11 fighters killed and 34 wounded.
Qaddafi's forces appeared on Friday to have retreated to the southern outskirts of the city, the correspondent said, while some fighters reported a battle under way for the airport.
"The rebels have half of Sirte and with God's will take the other half today," said Ibrahim Sweyib of the Red katiba (brigade).
Another fighter, Inneyo, also said half of Sirte is under the control of NTC forces.
"We have residential zone two and now we must take residential zones one and three," Inneyo said.
"They are firing Grad rockets at us," said Abdul Basit Jari, a fighter from the Misrata Soldiers Brigade.
"That black smoke is a Qaddafi loyalist's car we struck," Jari said, pointing to smoke billowing across the skyline.
The fighters had earlier regrouped at Hassan, some 60 kilometres (35 miles) west of Sirte, to prepare for the assault.
There were dozens of pick-ups bristling with anti-aircraft guns and some with cannon, along with many trucks, some laden with ammunition.
A convoy of battle-hardened fighters had set out from the port city of Misrata, some 150 kilometres (93 miles) west of Sirte, early on Thursday before splitting at the crossroads town of Abu Qurin for a three-pronged attack on Sirte.
The military council said the convoy of more than 900 armoured cars aimed at "freeing the city and raising the banner of independence."
Fighters on the ground on Friday were upbeat.
"We are expecting more clashes with Qaddafi's forces, but we hope to take all of Sirte today," Salah al-Areg, a combatant with the Al-Wadi Brigade told AFP.
"There are also Qaddafi forces holed up in Wadi Jaraf, some 30 kilometres from Sirte."
Fawzy Sawawy, commander of the Mountains Brigade, said on Thursday: "We are turning the tables on Qaddafi. We were attacked in Misrata on three fronts, and now we're going to attack Sirte on three fronts."
At the so-called Gate 50 checkpoint, 50 kilometres west of Sirte, an AFP correspondent on Friday saw NTC forces burying the bodies of four people they said were pro-Qaddafi fighters killed in a NATO air strike on Thursday.
A blackened four-wheel-drive vehicle that had been pulverised was to one side of the road, and some 20 metres (yards) away the fighters were burying the bodies wrapped in blankets.
"When we were advancing yesterday NATO struck ahead of us, and when we came forward we found the bodies," said one, Walid al-Juder.