SIRTE // Transitional Libyan government forces swept into Sirte yesterday in one of the biggest assaults yet on Muammar Qaddafi's hometown, but had to seek cover when they drew fire from his loyalists.
Fighters with the National Transitional Council shouted "God is greatest" as their force of about 100 pickup vehicles mounted with heavy weapons pushed into a residential district on the southern side of Sirte.
They were forced to scramble for refuge under heavy fire from Qaddafi fighters holed up in an apartment complex, a reporter on the scene said. Two NTC fighters were killed and three wounded in the exchanges.
"There is a very vicious battle now in Sirte," NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil told reporters in Tripoli, where he was meeting defence ministers from Britain and Italy.
"Today our fighters are dealing with the snipers that are taking positions and hiding in the city of Sirte."
Taking Sirte would bring Libya's new rulers closer to their goal of establishing control of the entire country almost two months after they seized Tripoli.
The NTC forces have thrust Qaddafi loyalists back from defensive positions well outside Sirte, and are now contesting control of the centre of the city in often chaotic, street-by-street battles.
A prolonged struggle to capture the remaining bastions of Qaddafi loyalists has sidetracked NTC efforts to set up an effective government in the country.
Thousands of civilians have fled Sirte as fighting has intensified, describing increasingly desperate conditions for those still inside the city.
There is no electricity and drinking water and food is running out. People have spoken of the stench of rotting corpses at the city's hospital.
Hassan Massoud drove out of the city in a pickup vehicle with his family in the cab and luggage teetering on the back. He said he decided to leave after his neighbour's house was hit.
"It was single-storey. It collapsed on them. It killed a man and a girl," he said.
Along with the interior town of Bani Walid, Sirte is one of the last redoubts of Qaddafi loyalists.
It holds symbolic importance because Qaddafi turned it from a fishing village into a second capital. He built opulent villas, hotels and conference halls to house the international summits he liked to stage there.
NTC officials said they believed Qaddafi's son Mo'tassim, who used to be the national security adviser, was hiding somewhere in Sirte. The loyalists "are defending fiercely," said Abdullah Aaly, an NTC field commander. "It looks like they are protecting someone important."
But taking Sirte carries risks for Libya's new rulers. A drawn-out battle with many civilian casualties will breed hostility that will make it difficult for the NTC to unite the country.
For the anti-Qaddafi fighters down in Sirte's streets, their offensive has turned into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with snipers.
They said Qaddafi forces had stationed snipers in the Ouagadougou hall, the university and hospital.
More snipers were in residential buildings in the north-eastern corner of Sirte. Faraj Leshersh, an NTC fighter in that sector, said the snipers were experts.
He said they used trenches between buildings which allowed them to move location without showing themselves. At other times, he said, they burnt tyres so the smoke would conceal their movements.
A sandstorm yesterday gave them cover to regain a little of the ground in the north-east of the city that they had earlier lost to the NTC forces.
Officials with the new government who have been given the task of tracking down Col Qaddafi said he was probably being sheltered by nomadic Tuareg tribesman far to the south in the desert.