- Associated Press - Saturday, September 17, 2011

SIRTE, Libya (AP) — Revolutionary fighters struggled to expand the offensive into Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown Saturday with street-by-street battles and commanders seeking to break open a new front against loyalist forces fiercely defending the most symbolic stronghold remaining from the shattered regime.

The fresh assaults into the seaside city of Sirte contrasted with a stalemate in the mountain enclave of Bani Walid where demoralized anti-Gadhafi forces tried to regroup after being beaten back by Gadhafi snipers and gunners holding strategic high ground.

Sirte, however, remains the big prize for both sides.

Anti-Gadhafi fighters backed by heavy machine guns and rockets tried to push through crowded residential areas in the city — on Libya’s central Mediterranean coast — but were met with a rain of gunfire and mortars. A field hospital set up outside Sirte at a gas station filled with wounded revolutionary militiamen, including those on a convoy hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

In earlier battles, Gadhafi’s gunmen fired from mosque minarets and high-rise buildings. In the streets, the two sides battered each other with high-caliber machine guns, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades.

At least three anti-Gadhafi fighters were killed Saturday, said Dr. Ayab Bassin as he worked amid bloodstained bandages. The casualty count on the loyalist side was unknown.

“There is no full control over Sirte,” said Hassan Dourai, Sirte representative in the new government’s interim government. He said fighters reported seeing one of Gadhafi’s son, Muatassim, shortly before the offensives began Friday, but he has not been spotted since the battles intensified.

The whereabouts of Gadhafi and several of his sons remain unknown. Other family members have fled to neighboring Algeria and Niger.

While battles raged, anti-Gadhafi commanders said they reached a surrender accord in most areas of the Harawa region, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Sirte. It opens a possible new pathway into Sirte for revolutionary forces.

But Gadhafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, claimed loyalists are in no danger of losing the city.

“We have the ability to continue this resistance for months,” he said in a phone call Friday to Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, which has become the mouthpiece for the former regime.

The conditions inside Sirte, meanwhile, grow increasingly dire for those caught in the crossfire. Nouri Abu Bakr, a 42-year-old teacher fleeing the city, said there is no electricity or medicine and food supplies are nearly exhausted.

Gadhafi gave all the people weapons, but those fighting are the Gadhafi brigade of loyalists,” he said.

The same types of hard-line forces are apparently leading the defense of Bani Walid, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli. The fighters withdrew Friday after facing withering sniper fire and shelling from loyalists units holding key positions above the valley entrance to the town.

There were no signs Saturday that anti-Gadhafi forces planned a swift counter punch.

“This may be the worst front Libya will see,” said fighter Osama Al-Fassi, who joined other former rebels gathered at a feed factory where they drank coffee and took target practice at plastic bottles. “I don’t think we will have orders to move in today.”

Meanwhile, more families fled the town. At least a dozen cars streamed out during the lull in the combat.

A 50-year-old civil servant leaving with his family, Ismail Mohammed, described the pro-Gadhafi forces as “too strong” inside Bani Walid and suggested a generational divide between young people strongly behind the uprising and older Libyans often more cautious about whether the revolutionary forces can bring stability.

“The youth wanted this revolution and sometimes you can’t control your own son,” he said.

The tough defense of the holdout bastions of Bani Walid and Sirte displayed the firepower and resolve of the Gadhafi followers and indicated Libya’s new rulers may not easily break the back of regime holdouts. It also raised fears the country could face a protracted insurgency of the sort that has played out in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The loyalists still hold a swath of Libya along the central coast and into the southern deserts more than three weeks after revolutionary fighters swept into Tripoli and drove out Gadhafi.

In Libya’s southern desert, hundreds of former rebels also have massed deep in the southern desert and were trying to negotiate with villagers in a pro-Gadhafi area to surrender peacefully.

Hundreds of revolutionary forces left the captured Bani Jalloud air base and rolled through villages where they reached truces. Along the route, crowds cheered their arrival and flashed V-for-victory signs.

Each step brought them closer to the loyalist city of Sabha, the main southern urban center about 400 miles (650 kilometers) south of Tripoli.

Col. Bashir Awidat, a revolutionary commander, said they seek to secure the surrounding hinterlands moving against Sabha. He added that the villagers had been isolated and believed Gadhafi’s propaganda.

“They think that we’ll raid their houses and rob them. The media coverage here has been bad for 42 years and it has trained people to think a certain way, and that will take time to change,” he told The Associated Press at the captured air base.

The new leadership has been gaining international support in its campaign to root out the rest of Gadhafi’s regime and establish authority. French President Nicholas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan all visited Tripoli this week.

The U.N. General Assembly also voted Friday to give Libya’s seat in the world body to the National Transitional Council, which is the closest thing the oil-rich North African nation has to a government.

The vote means that a senior council official will be able to join world leaders and speak for Libya at next week’s ministerial session of the General Assembly, and participate in meetings.

Also Friday, the U.N. Security Council approved a new U.N. mission in Libya and the unfreezing of assets of two major oil companies. It also lifted a ban on flights by Libyan aircraft and modified an arms embargo.

___

Al-Shalchi reported from Bani Walid. Associated Press writers Kim Gamel in Tripoli, Libya, Ben Hubbard at the Jalloul Air Force Base, Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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