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A National Transitional Council tank shells the city of Sirte yesterday, but a commander admits that they were forced into a retreat. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP
A National Transitional Council tank shells the city of Sirte yesterday, but a commander admits that they were forced into a retreat. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP

Qaddafi loyalists dig in for 'last battle' in Sirte

NTC forces pushed back in Sirte assault as commanders admit they are 'taking a beating' and reiterate call for more support from Nato.

SIRTE // Qaddafi diehards fought pitched battles yesterday with combatants loyal to Libya's new rulers in a struggle for control of the former leader's birthplace, Sirte, with the heaviest fighting focused at the port.

Fighters of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya's interim government, had been forced to retreat during ferocious fighting on the eastern edge of Sirte that raged through the night, their commanders said.

But after a brief lull, they returned to the fray in the early afternoon, with the two sides shelling each other and trading heavy machine-gun fire around the port as well as near the Mahari Hotel.

NTC field commanders said their forces remained in control of the hotel and the port, which they overran on Tuesday.

"It is becoming a day-to-day fight. One day we are winning, the next day they are winning," said one commander.

The commander said the latest fighting in Sirte was the fiercest yet since NTC forces launched their assault on the Mediterranean city, 360 kilometres east of Tripoli.

For Qaddafi loyalists this was the "last battle", he said. "Our troops are taking a heavy beating at the moment. Today we retreated 3km."

In a separate incident, three NTC fighters were killed by "friendly fire" yesterday when they were shelled by a tank on the front line in eastern Sirte, the commander said.

"There was some lack of coordination and our fighters were hit by a shell fired by our tank stationed behind them. There were three martyred."

Further casualties were suffered, according to medics at a field hospital about 50km west of Sirte, when a rocket in a munitions dump fired accidentally and hit a room filled with fighters, killing two and wounding 18.

Equally fierce resistance from loyalists in the desert town of Bani Walid, Col Qaddafi's other remaining bastion of support, has stalled a final assault by NTC fighters, said commanders, who urged Nato to increase its air support.

While Colonel Qaddafi's whereabouts remain unknown, Libya's defence ministry spokesman, Ahmed Bani, said in Tripoli that one of his sons, Saif Al Islam, was in Bani Walid while another, Mutassim, was thought to be in Sirte.

Along with his father and the former intelligence chief Abdullah Al Senussi, Saif is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity.

The anti-Qaddafi forces have urged Nato to intensify its air war because of the heavy casualties they were suffering.

Despite using tanks, rocket launchers and artillery, the NTC forces have not advanced from positions held for the past few days in Bani Walid, 170km south-east of Tripoli. "There is always incoming missile and artillery fire. We are returning fire with heavy weapons but we are not sending in infantry. We are waiting for reinforcements," said Captain Walid Khaimej.

"Nato is here but is not doing enough. They take out the rocket launchers firing at us, but they are immediately replaced. We need more help from Nato."

Under a UN mandate aimed at protecting civilians, the alliance has been giving air support to the popular revolt that erupted in February and forced Col Qaddafi out of the capital and into hiding last month.

Colonel Roland Lavoie, the air campaign's military spokesman, denied Nato had reduced its activity in Libya, noting alliance aircraft had conducted at least 100 sorties a day over the past few days.

"The number of strikes depends on the danger against the civilian population, in conformity with our mandate," Col Lavoie said.

In its latest operational update published on Thursday, Nato said its warplanes had struck an ammunition store, a command and control node, a tank, and two ammunition and missile facilities.

Interpol, meanwhile, issued an arrest notice for Colonel Qaddafi's son Saadi for alleged crimes while head of Libya's football federation.

Saadi, 38, faces accusations that he misappropriated property and engaged in "armed intimidation" when he headed the federation.

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