Civilians flee Gadhafi loyalist stronghold of Sirte

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SIRTE, Libya (AP) — Hundreds of civilians fled Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown Monday to escape growing shortages of food and medicine and escalating fears that their homes will be struck during fighting between revolutionary forces and regime loyalists.

Anti-Gadhafi fighters launched their offensive against Sirte nearly two weeks ago but have faced fierce resistance from loyalists holed up inside the city. After a bloody push into Sirte again over the weekend, revolutionary fighters say they have pulled back to plan their assault and allow civilians more time to flee.

NATO, which has played a key role in decimating Col. Gadhafi’s military during the Libyan civil war, has kept up its air campaign since the fall of Tripoli last month. The alliance said Monday its warplanes struck eight military targets near Sirte a day earlier, including an ammunition and vehicle storage facility and rocket launcher.

Sirte, 250 miles southeast of Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast, is one of the last remaining bastions of Gadhafi loyalists since revolutionary fighters stormed into the capital last month, ending Col. Gadhafi’s nearly 42-year rule and sending him into hiding. The fugitive leader’s supporters also remain in control of the town of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli, and pockets of territory in the country’s south.

But even as fighting continues, Libyans have been working to restore a sense of normalcy in the North African nation of some 6 million people.

In a boost to the economy, Italian energy giant Eni said Monday it has resumed oil production in Libya after months of interruption for the civil war, tapping 15 wells and producing some 31,900 barrels of oil per day. French energy company Total said it restarted some production last week.

Libya’s economic future could hinge on the performance of its lucrative oil and gas sectors, whose production ground to a halt during this year’s insurgency against Col. Gadhafi.

Libya sits atop Africa’s largest proven reserves of conventional crude, and it raked in $40 billion last year from oil and gas exports. Still, experts say, it could take about a year or more to get Libya back to its pre-war production of 1.6 million barrels a day.

British Trade Minister Stephen Green also visited Tripoli and said his country’s businesses are eager to take part in the rebuilding of Libya and also will assist with British expertise. But he said no strategic decisions would be made in Libya until the country has completed writing a new constitution and an elected government is in place.

Libya’s new leaders have struggled to form a new interim Cabinet that could guide the country to elections.

The country’s de facto prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, meanwhile, asked the U.N. Security Council to lift some of the economic sanctions on his country but said NATO should stay until civilians no longer are being killed.

Civilians fleeing Sirte on Monday described grave shortages of food, fuel, drinking water and medicine.

Dr. Eman Mohammed, a 30-year-old physician at the city’s central Ibn Sina Hospital, said the facility was short on most medicines and had no oxygen in the operating rooms. She said that most days, patients who reach the hospital find no one to treat them because fuel shortages and fear keep staff from coming to work.

She said many recent injuries appear to be caused by revolutionary forces. “Most of the people killed or injured recently are from the shelling,” she said.

Forces on the city’s outskirts fire tank shells, Grad rockets and mortar rounds toward the city daily with little more than a general idea of what they are targeting. NATO, meanwhile, is operating in Libya under a mandate to protect civilians.

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