- 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.

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