TRIPOLI // Fighters loyal to Col Muammar Qaddafi repelled National Transitional Council (NTC) forces yesterday on two key fronts, evidence that Libya's war remains unfinished.
While the NTC controls most of Libya and enjoys broad international support, its forces face resistance by loyalist fighters in the cities of Bani Walid and Sirte, Col Qaddafi's hometown.
Both are viewed as possible locations of Col Qaddafi, who went into hiding last month as Tripoli fell.
A military spokesman for the NTC said yesterday it did not know Col Qaddafi's whereabouts. "Up to now we don't have any certain information or intelligence about his whereabouts," Col Ahmed Omar Bani said.
Col Qaddafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, warned that "we have the ability to continue this resistance for months" in a phone call Friday to Syria-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece for the former regime.
Twenty-four rebel fighters were killed and 54 wounded in yesterday's battles, the military council from Misurata reported. NTC fighters fell back on Friday from Bani Walid under mortar and sniper fire and struggled to mount a new offensive yesterday.
Located 145 kilometres south of Tripoli, Bani Walid is a centre for the influential Warfalla tribe, some of whose leaders have supported Col Qaddafi during the six-month civil war. While NTC commanders initially believed that about 100 loyalist fighters controlled the town, battle reports indicate heavy firepower and, possibly, a larger loyalist force.
"The Qaddafi loyalists have so many weapons," Maab Fatel, 28, an NTC fighter on Bani Walid's front line, his clothes stained with a comrade's blood, told the Associated Press.
Inside Bani Walid, a radio station allegedly linked to Col Qaddafi's supporters urged residents to fight NTC forces it accused of rampant drinking and drug use.
The NTC fighters deny the claims.
NTC pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft machine guns rushed into Bani Walid as dusk fell, after Col Qaddafi's forces shelled a checkpoint, Reuters reporters
"Qaddafi forces attacked the checkpoint so our troops went in. There is a lot of fighting inside the city right now," the senior regional NTC official Abdullah Kenshil told Reuters.
The rebels captured the Al Gurdabia airbase south of Sirte, the opposition's military council in Misurata said in a statement.
In Sirte, on Libya's coast, NTC fighters trying to enter the city were embroiled in vicious street-by-street fighting as loyalist forces rained mortar and machine-gun fire on them.
Columns of black smoke rose over Sirte, as revolutionary fighters tried to push through crowded residential areas. The rebels were met by a heavy fire from Qaddafi loyalists.
The pro-regime radio station in Sirte repeatedly aired a recorded message it said was from Col Qaddafi urging the city's defenders to fight on.
"You must resist fiercely. You must kick them out of Sirte," the voice said. "If they get inside Sirte, they are going to rape the women." The authenticity of the voice could not be confirmed.
Nato said yesterday that its warplanes had struck 20 targets around Sirte on Friday, including five command and control nodes, three radar systems, four armed vehicles and eight air missile systems.
Mr Ibrahim said Friday's air strikes hit a residential building and hotel, killing 345 people.
Nato commanders said they doubt Mr Ibrahim's claims.
"It is not the first time such allegations have been made," Col Roland Lavoie, spokesman for the western military alliance, said. "Most often, they are revealed to be unfounded or inconclusive."
East of Sirte, NTC fighters danced in the streets of the town of Herawa, captured yesterday after days of fighting. They sang "Qaddafi, we will burn you" and ripped down posters of the fugitive former strongman, stamping on his face in the dirt.
The UN special adviser Ian Martin said from Tripoli yesterday in an interview with Al Jazeera television that the UN wants the rebels to "complete the transition with as little bloodshed as possible".
Mr Martin also told Al Jazeera that "the liberation of weapons", especially Col Qaddafi's heavy weapons, that are outside NTC control "is going to be a significant problem for some time to come".
* With additional reporting by Bloomberg, the Associated Press and Reuters