National Transitional Council fighters in Libya have been besieging Sirte for three weeks and it was unclear yesterday whether the battle will end anytime soon.
Anti-Qaddafi commanders say they've launched "final assault" on Sirte
TRIPOLI // National Transitional Council (NTC) forces battled their way into Muammar Qaddafi's hometown of Sirte yesterday in what commanders described as a final assault to wrest it from loyalists of his collapsed regime.
NTC fighters have been besieging Sirte for three weeks, facing gruelling resistance.
Yesterday's fighting was concentrated on the outskirts of the city, and it was unclear yesterday whether the battle will end anytime soon.
Much is riding on the outcome. The NTC has said that only after Sirte is captured will a new interim government be formed. A month after the fall of Sirte, the NTC says, the new government will start the process to steer Libya through elections to take place eight months later.
Well-armed loyalist fighters in Sirte have beaten back several assaults and sustained weeks of tank, artillery and rocket fire that has sent civilians streaming out of the city.
"Today we will finish it. God willing today we will capture Sirte," said Col Ahmed El Obeidi, an NTC commander east of the city, quoted by Reuters news agency.
Yesterday smoke billowed over the city as NTC tanks and artillery lobbed shells in from positions to the east.
On Thursday, Col Qaddafi branded the NTC as illegitimate and urged Libyans to stage an uprising via a recorded message broadcast on Syria's Rai TV.
"Be courageous, rise up, go out in the streets," he said in the message, which could not be verified but appeared to be Col Qaddafi's voice. "Raise the green flag in the skies."
Yesterday and the night before, fighting accelerated in Sirte as NTC fighters began their assault. Sometime after midnight doctors at a field hospital east of the city heard an explosion that Col Obeidi said occurred when his forces hit a loyalist weapons storage facility.
Fierce fighting broke out near the Ouagadougou conference centre, a beloved venue of Col Qaddafi on the western edge of Sirte that had become the main stronghold of loyalist forces, according to Agence France-Presse.
"They're shooting from everywhere. RPGs and lots of bullets," said Barak Abu Hajar, an NTC fighter who evacuated a wounded comrade from the conference centre. "We were told this was the final assault. Inshallah we'll take Sirte today."
Inside the city, conditions have plummeted, with electricity and communications cut off amid shortages of food, water and medical supplies. Fleeing residents cited by news agencies describe a ghost town.
"We didn't know there was going to be an assault," said Saeed Ramadan, passing through an NTC checkpoint east of Sirte in a shrapnel-scarred vehicle, quoted by Reuters. "I couldn't sleep last night, there was very heavy shelling. I was afraid for my kids and had to get them out."
International aid agencies have struggled to resupply Sirte's overwhelmed hospitals, with several forays by Doctors Without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) cut short by heavy fighting.
On Thursday an ICRC team reached Ibn Sina Hospital after receiving assurances of safe passage from both NTC and loyalist forces, reported the Associated Press, citing ICRC spokeswomen Dibeh Fakhr.
"Only three doctors are remaining inside - one anaesthetist, one surgeon and one orthopaedist - and some medical students are trying to help the situation," Mrs Fakhr said.
With hospital wards exposed to shelling and gunfire, patients were being treated in the corridors, according to Mrs Fakhr. The ICRC team evacuated three seriously injured people including a nine-year-old girl, she said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of wounded fighters were rushed to field hospitals set up several kilometres to Sirte's east and west, where NTC forces have massed.
Doctors cited by the Associated Press said a senior NTC commander, Ali Saeh of the Free Libya Brigade, was injured, shot twice by a sniper.
By early afternoon yesterday at least nine bodies were brought to a makeshift hospital in a villa west of Sirte, reported Agence France-Press. Medics had recorded at least 115 wounded, with the toll expected to rise.
A trail of blood led up the steps of the villa. Inside, a man lit incense sticks in the treatment area and bodies were laid out in a room at the back.
Outside, a young stood named Hakim Majook stood weeping over one of the bodies, a 20-year-old neighbour from their home city of Misurata.
"We're trying to make sure he gets to his family quickly. Then we will go back to the fight," Mr Majook told AFP. "He's not the first friend I've lost. But the men who die will go to heaven."
The men who survive will perhaps remain in Sirte while others return to their home cities. Some may proceed to Bani Walid, where a rebel commander cited by AFP said that a new offensive is planned to oust loyalist fighters there.
The capture of Sirte would make Bani Walid, where Col Qaddafi's son Saif Al Islam is rumoured to be hiding, the last major loyalist stronghold
NTC reinforcements were sent to Bani Walid on Thursday, said Mussa Ali Yunes, commander of the Jado Brigade from the western Nafusa Mountains region.
As in Sirte, those fighters will be up against heavy loyalist firepower, said Commander Yunes. "The offensive could, possibly, be launched in two days, but that depends."
With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press