x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Qaddafi loyalists put up fierce resistance in street-by-street defence of Sirte

Nato surprised at ferocity of resistance to NTC fighters, who suffer serious casualties in fighting for control of Sirte.

NTC fighters battle pro-Qaddafi forces in central Sirte yesterday as they attempt to take full control of the city and the country. Bela Szandelszky / AP Photo
NTC fighters battle pro-Qaddafi forces in central Sirte yesterday as they attempt to take full control of the city and the country. Bela Szandelszky / AP Photo

SIRTE // The scream pierced the concrete walls of the makeshift field hospital on the outskirts of Sirte, where diehard supporters of Col Muammar Qaddafi were making their last stand in the battle for Libya.

The blood-curdling wail came from a fighter for the interim government whose shoulder was shredded by a bullet fired from guns wielded by what remains of the forces of the old regime: snipers. For the wounded fighter, there would be no immediate relief.

"We have no morphine," said Dr Ezzedine Al Farsi, part of an eight-member team of doctors at the field hospital, a former schoolhouse. "But we haven't needed it much because the snipers are aiming for the heart and the head."

For the injured, any hope for relieving their agony was far away. Their sirens blaring, ambulances sped them from the field hospital and into the night on the coastal road to Ras Lanuf.

The casualty toll testifies to the ferocity of the resistance put up by loyalists to the deposed leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. At least 22 fighters for the interim National Transitional Council (NTC) were killed and another 155 were wounded on Monday, according to Dr Al Farsi. A day earlier, 25 were killed and 220 wounded, he said.

The theatre of the final battle in the war for Libya has shrunk. First it was the university and convention centre here that fell to interim government forces. Then it was the police headquarters in the centre of town.

Yesterday, the regime's last gasps in the hometown of its one-time leader were being measured block by block, metre by metre on streets now emptied of civilians.From atop roofs and from behind cornices, outnumbered but not yet outgunned pro-Qaddafi forces sought to pick off interim government fighters. Militias from Benghazi in the east and Misurata in the west have driven them into two neighbourhoods in the north of what was once a showcase second capital for the former Libyan leader.

Farag Sheiter, commander of a brigade in charge of the main checkpoint on the eastern entrance of Sirte, said: "It's very different from anything else we've seen. It's urban warfare, fighting street by street."

In Brussels, a Nato spokesman called the resistance of Col Qaddafi's supporters "surprising". Colonel Roland Lavoie said that instead of opting for a political solution, they have chosen to continue fighting and "to inflict pain on the rest of the population in Libya".

With no resupply possible, however, their cause is hopeless. "It just does not make sense to see what these few remaining forces are doing," Col Lavoie told reporters.

One explanation for the tenacity of the Qaddafi loyalists was provided yesterday by an NTC commander. While Col Qaddafi was thought to be hiding in the south-western desert near the borders with Niger and Algeria, one of his sons, Mo'tassim Qaddafi, was now cornered in one of Sirte's northern neighbourhoods, said the commander, Colonel Mohammed Ajhseer.

As the fighting raged in the streets yesterday, terrified families emerged from their houses and tried to leave.

NTC fighters surrounded their vehicles and searched them for weapons - a mark of the deep mistrust in Sirte, where many people belong to Col Qaddafi's tribe and opposed his overthrow. "There are explosions all the time," said one woman, who was in a white van with seven children.

"There is no water. There is nothing," she said, then started crying. On the western outskirts of Sirte, a flatbed lorry drove out carrying about 30 people, including children clutching dolls and blankets.

It was raining, and they were wet and shivering. One of them, Abdul Menem Ahmed, from Omdurman in Sudan, said he had been working as an accountant in Libya for 14 years. "There is no food, no water, no medicine," he said.


* With additional reporting by Reuters and the Associated Press