x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

NTC forces push on for full control in Sirte

Many desperate Libyan civilians were still trying to flee the fierce street fighting as NTC troops pushed into Sirte.

SIRTE // Forces for Libyan transitional government cornered Qaddafi loyalists in the centre of the deposed leader's hometown, they said yesterday.

Many desperate civilians were still trying to flee the fierce street fighting as the troops pushed into Sirte.

The protracted battle for the city had raised concerns that civilian casualties could breed long-term hostility, making it hard for the National Transitional Council (NTC) to unite the country once the fighting is over.

"Qaddafi's forces are cornered in two neighbourhoods near the sea, an area of about two kilometres square, but there is still resistance," Abdul Salam Javallah, commander of NTC units from eastern Libya, told Reuters on the front line of their attack.

"We are dealing with them now with light weapons because there are still families inside."

Shortly after he spoke, a group of three women, three small children and two men emerged from a house on the front line. They were searched by soldiers before getting into a car and driving away waving the V-for-victory sign.

Another family of three women and one man, stopping at a checkpoint as they fled Sirte, said they had been trapped in their house by the fighting.

"We didn't know where the strikes were coming from," said one of the women, Umm Ismail. "Everyone is being hit all day and all night. There is no electricity and no water. There is nothing. There is not one neighbourhood that hasn't been hit."

NTC commanders said they were only using light weapons but government tanks have also moved into road intersections and pounded pro-Qaddafi positions, while pickup lorries mounted with heavy weapons and foot soldiers darted out of cover to fire wildly up ahead.

At times, NTC units came under fire from their own side, a hazard that became more acute as the groups of government volunteers attacking from the east and west closed in on one another.

Most of the government forces attacking Sirte were from other towns and did not have much help from the inside, as they did they when they captured the capital, Tripoli, on August 23, ending 42 years of one-man rule by Col Qaddafi after six months of war.

Many civilians from Sirte were also fighting alongside the remnants of Col Qaddafi's army in the belief that the outsiders would commit atrocities once they captured the city of 75,000 people.

Col Qaddafi was believed to be hiding in the desert to the south.

"Qaddafi's troops know their way around," said one government fighter during a brief lull in the fighting. "We don't know the city. We don't even know what's in the next street."

NTC forces had struggled to take Sirte and a few other leftover bastions of Col Qaddafi loyalists, which had impeded efforts to set up effective government nationwide and restart oil production, the lifeblood of Libya's economy.

NTC forces in Sirte took three important landmark buildings on Sunday - the main hospital, the university and the opulent Ouagadougou conference centre, built to host the summits of foreign dignitaries that Col Qaddafi was fond of staging.

"Eighty per cent of Sirte is under our control," said Omar Abu Lifa, a commander of government forces attacking Sirte from the west.

NTC forces have repeatedly claimed to be on the point of victory in Sirte, only to suffer sudden reversals at the hands of a tenacious enemy fighting for its life, surrounded on three sides and with its back to the sea.

In a field hospital to the east of the city, doctors received 17 dead and 87 wounded from Sunday's fighting. There were dozens more casualties elsewhere.

A student who had escaped from the centre of the city said he had watched from a rooftop on Sunday as Col Qaddafi soldiers destroyed 10 government pickup lorries.

"Their morale is very high," said Salam Awad. "They are prepared to fight to the death."

The NTC chairman, Abdel Jalil, said his men had reached Sirte city centre, while the only other major town in the hands of Qaddafi loyalists, Bani Walid in the interior desert to the south, was also under siege from five sides.

"I think and I hope, with the help of God, the liberation of these two towns will be completed by the end of this week. God willing," he said in Tripoli on Sunday.