SIRTE // Hundreds of revolutionary forces have pushed into Moammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte in the first significant assault in about a week.
Explosions rocked the city and plumes of smoke rose into the sky on Saturday as revolutionary fighters fired rockets and heavy artillery from outside and Qaddafi's forces returned fire.
The fighters have occupied a key roundabout called Zafaran west of the downtown area. They say their goal is to occupy two neighborhoods on the western side of the city.
The two sides have been locked in a standoff since former rebels tried to advance on the city a week ago but were repelled by fierce resistance.
Sirte is one of three Qaddafi strongholds that refused to surrender after revolutionary forces seized control of Tripoli.
Earlier today, Moammar Qaddafi's firebrand daughter said in an audio recording broadcast Friday that her father is in high spirits and fighting alongside his supporters against the revolutionary forces who swept his regime from power.
In her first public remarks since the fall of Tripoli a month ago, Aisha Qaddafi accused the country's new leaders of being traitors, noting that some of them were members of Qaddafi's regime before defecting in the civil war.
"Those who have betrayed the pledge they offered (to Qaddafi), how come they won't betray you?" she said in a warning to Libyans.
The prerecorded four-minute message was broadcast on the Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become Qaddafi's main mouthpiece. The elder Qaddafi, his chief spokesman and his son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, have also released statements through the channel since the takeover of Tripoli.
Aisha, her mother and two brothers fled to Algeria in late August as rebels swept into Libya's capital. Her father's whereabouts is unknown.
"I assure you, he is fine, a believer in God, in good spirits, is carrying his gun and is fighting side by side with the warriors," she said.
Echoing remarks her father has made to the same station, she called on the "lions" of Tripoli and other cities to rise up and fight the country's new rulers.
Aisha Qaddafi is a lawyer in her mid-30s who helped in the defense of Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the trial that led to his hanging.
For two years she served as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Development Program, focusing on combatting HIV/AIDS and violence against women. In February, the U.N. said it was ending its agreement with her after her father's crackdown on anti-government protesters at the start of what was to become Libya's civil war.
The Algerian Health Ministry reported that Aisha gave birth to a girl on Aug. 30 as she was fleeing across the border. She is reported to have three older children, including a daughter said to have died in a NATO airstrike in April that killed one of her brothers and two other Qaddafi grandchildren.
Libya's new leaders have struggled to consolidate their control over the entire country since their stunning entry into Tripoli at the end of August. Three major loyalist strongholds remain to be taken, including the city of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli.
Revolutionary fighters are planning a new assault on the city, where forces loyal to Qaddafi have put up fierce resistance for two weeks, a commander said Friday.
Attempts to take the desert city have failed, as loyalist forces massed inside direct punishing mortar, rocket and machine gun fire at fighters crowded around the northern gate. A brigade of fighters will try instead to attack the city from the southeastern side, said field commander Abdel-Salam Genouna.
Libya's new leaders in the National Transitional Council insist the holdouts in Bani Walid, Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte and Sabha, deep in the southern desert, are die-hard supporters - some of whom fled Tripoli - who believe they have no choice but to resist or face war crimes charges.
Whatever their numbers, they are well-armed and fighting is still raging on the three fronts.
In Bani Walid, the assault has been made more challenging by the high hills and deep desert valleys in an around the city, 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.
"The terrain has proven too difficult to overcome from the northern edge," Genouna told The Associated Press. He also blamed what he said was a lack of support from the military council as well as poor planning and shortages of ammunition.
He said the brigade will be leaving to the new front over the weekend. More than 30 fighters have been killed in the failed effort to take the city from the north.
Fighting continued there on Friday.
Smoke could be seen rising from Bani Walid after NATO warplanes were heard in the area. NATO is continuing to strike Qaddafi forces in an air campaign that began in March under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
"We are ready to fight, but frankly we don't have a leader to guide us when we enter (Bani Walid). We need a leader to give us instructions," complained fighter Ali Omran.
In Tripoli, dozens of residents gathered in the center of the city to demand the National Transitional Council address the needs of those injured during the civil war, which began in February.
Protesters held aloft a giant new Libyan flag, chanted in support of the injured, and carried signs reading "Help our wounded."
Also Friday, hundreds gathered in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square to offer prayers for those still fighting supporters of the former regime.