TRIPOLI // Fighters from Libya's interim government appeared to be increasing pressure last night on two cities still under the control of Col Muammar Qaddafi's loyalists, as hundreds of fighters moved forward in convoys of lorries.
The National Transitional Council (NTC) has emerged as the new government of the country until elections in eight months, with the UN General Assembly voting to give the council Libya's seat yesterday. But loyalists in three major cities forming a triangular section in the middle of Libya have refused to surrender despite negotiation attempts.
An NTC military spokesman said yesterday that 11 fighters were killed and 34 wounded in an attack on Col Qaddafi's hometown, the coastal city of Sirte, that began on Thursday afternoon. NTC fighters had said they captured Sirte on Thursday, but were beaten back by sniper fire and rocket attacks.
Reports from the front lines yesterday revealed that fighters regrouped and attacked Sirte again. Qaddafi loyalists rained gunfire down from mosque minarets and high-rise buildings on fighters pushing into the city from the west, while in the streets the two sides battered each other with high-calibre machine guns, rockets, and rocket-propelled grenades.
Taking Sirte would give the NTC fighters a major advantage in liberating the rest of the country by allowing travel between Benghazi and Tripoli, and securing the entire coast.
Meanwhile, another group of NTC fighters was pressing into the mountain town of Bani Walid, a Qaddafi stronghold 140 kilometres south-east of the capital. NTC fighters and Qaddafi loyalists traded relentless mortar and rocket fire across a 500-metre-wide desert valley called Wadi Zeitoun that divides the town - and the two sides - between north and south. Fighters dashed through alleyways to set off volleys of fire, hitting a residence that Col Qaddafi was building on the remains of an old fort overlooking the wadi.
"The Qaddafi loyalists have so many weapons. This battle is really crazy," Maab Fatel, 28, an NTC fighter, his uniform splattered with bloodstains from carrying a wounded comrade, told the Associated Press.
It was unclear yesterday what the NTC's top military brass had in store for the coming days, but officials have said in the past week that there was an aggressive plan to liberate the rest of the country as soon as possible. Without the security of the country in place, building a new democracy and civil institutions cannot begin, the acting prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, said this month.
The new battles on Thursday coincided with a visit by David Cameron, the prime minister of the UK, and Nicholas Sarkozy, the president of France. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, arrived yesterday for a visit.
Tripoli was taken over by the NTC without major casualties, but it has emerged in the last several weeks that many of Col Qaddafi's troops either removed their uniforms and fled, or retreated for a last stand in Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha deep in the Sahara. Fighting had died down in the three weeks since the siege of Tripoli, but a military step-up appeared to be in the works with the help of Nato airstrikes.
A statement from Nato said on Thursday that it had fired on a military storage facility, two armed vehicles, one tank, four rocket launchers and eight air missile systems. Across the country, 15 per cent of Col Qaddafi's forces are still in operation, it said.
Col Qaddafi has taunted the new government through recordings passed to the Syria-based Arrai television channel and through comments made by his spokesman Moussa Ibrahim. Late on Thursday night, Mr Ibrahim said the arrival of foreign dignitaries to visit the NTC was evidence that imperial powers were seeking to set up a western "fiefdom" in Libya.
Mr Ibrahim called the visits "the start of a project of colonisation of Libya".
"They are hurrying to collect the fruits of the fall of Tripoli ... because they obviously fear the arrival of America and other countries wanting a slice of the cake," he said. "They hurried to Tripoli to make secret deals with the collaborators and the traitors, and to take the control of oil and investments under the pretext of rebuilding."
In New York yesterday, the UN General Assembly passed the resolution to give Libya's seat in the world body to the NTC by a vote of 114-17 with 15 abstentions, revealing divisions in Africa and Latin America over who should represent the country.
A left-leaning Latin American trade bloc opposed giving the seat to the former opposition forces, with Venezuela accusing Nato forces of carrying out "criminal air raids ... in order to install a puppet government". Southern Africa's main regional bloc opposed giving the NTC credentials immediately but failed to win support to defer a vote.
With additional reporting by Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse