Battle for Sirte: NTC forces battle house by house
Libya's new regime forces were moving in for the kill against Moamer Gathafi's remaining diehards in Sirte Tuesday as they battled house by house towards the heart of the fallen leader's hometown.
But the loyalists were putting up fierce resistance and in their other remaining bastion, Bani Walid, they mounted a fightback, killing 17 National Transitional Council fighters.
The interim ruling NTC has been waiting for Sirte's full capture to declare the liberation of the whole of Libya, clearing the way to draw up a timetable for elections.
Early Tuesday, machinegun fire clattered through the streets as NTC fighters regrouped at a mosque, drinking tea before going back into battle, an AFP reporter said.
Wissam bin Ahmid, commander of NTC forces at Sirte's eastern front, said they were close to overrunning the entire city but still feared for the safety of many civilians too scared to flee the fighting.
"There remains still two square kilometres (0.8 square mile) to take to free the city completely," Ahmid said."There are still some snipers. But our main worry are the families still in the city who are too afraid to leave their houses as the snipers are using them as firing posts," he said.
On Monday, the third day of what commanders had touted as a final assault, NTC troops captured Sirte's showpiece conference centre, university campus and hospital on Sunday, AFP correspondents said.
The battle was ferocious, with the NTC fighters coming under heavy rocket and small arms fire as they inched forward house by house, while snipers fired on them from rooftops.
"The revolutionaries are less than one kilometre from the central square. We control about 90 percent of Sirte," said Makhluf el-Ferjani of the Sirte military council.
But the military gains came at a heavy price, with medics reporting 13 dead and 90 wounded on the western side of Sirte alone.
The bodies of another four NTC fighters were recovered from the city's Ibn Sina hospital following its capture from Gathafi's forces.
The hospital's upper floors were blasted after a massive firefight broke out late on Sunday, with intense machinegun and rocket fire.
"It's chaotic," said Red Cross spokeswoman Dibeh Fakhr, as medics wheeled patients out on beds and shells rocked the area.
A convoy of nine vehicles, including four large trucks, waited outside to ferry the patients out of the war zone.
"This is not a functioning hospital. The patients need evacuation because the wards have all been hit. There were three doctors here last week, but yesterday there was just one."
The wounded were still on beds in the corridors, all of them men of fighting age whom the NTC fighters accuse of being Gathafi's loyalists -- something they denied.
"They think I was with the Gathafi fighters but it was just an accident," said Abdullah Mohammed Faraj, a 24-year-old with a stump for a right arm. Beside him an NTC fighter said: "Tell the truth. Be a soldier. Be a man."
In Bani Walid, a desert oasis 170 kilometres (105 miles) southeast of Tripoli, the military said NTC fighters withdrew from forward positions in a "tactical pullback" after intense fighting on Sunday. "We lost 17 fighters in fierce clashes on Sunday and our forces have withdrawn from the airport where they had taken control," said Salem Gheith, head of the NTC military command centre in the capital. "We've received reinforcements from Tripoli and the Nafusa mountains, and we will resume the offensive," he added
Regional NTC commander Yunes Mussa announced the airport's capture on Sunday, before the fightback by pro-Gathafi forces. The ferocity of the resistance in Sirte and Bani Walid has surprised Libya's new regime.
At least 70 NTC fighters have been killed and hundreds wounded since Friday when they launched a final push on Sirte after several days of NATO air strikes to soften up pro-Gathafi positions.
NATO said its warplanes struck three armed vehicles in Bani Walid on Sunday, and its secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the alliance was close to terminating its mission in Libya. "We are pretty close to the very end of this operation," Rasmussen said in Bucharest.
Rasmussen said despite the NTC's advances in Sirte, NATO "had no knowledge of the colonel's whereabouts," adding that Gathafi "is not a target of our operation."
NTC commanders believe one of Gathafi's sons, Mutassim, is in Sirte and that another, Seif al-Islam, once seen as the former strongman's successor, is hiding in Bani Walid, possibly with his father.
In a sign of growing diplomatic confidence, Libya's interim government said it recognises the Syrian National Council, a broad grouping of regime opponents officially assembled in Istanbul on October 2.
"The National Transitional Council has decided after a meeting today to recognise the Syrian National Council as the sole legitimate government in Syria," NTC member Mussa al-Koni told a news conference in Tripoli.