Breakthrough for NTC forces in Sirte
SIRTE // Transitional government forces increased the pressure on Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's loyalists yesterday by seizing a convention centre in his hometown that had served as a key base for the fugitive leader's forces.
Libya's de facto leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the governing National Transitional Council (NTC), said yesterday that anti-Qaddafi fighters had made huge gains in Sirte and Bani Walid, an inland enclave south-east of the capital.
"I do believe, God willing, that the liberation of these cities will happen within this week," he said in Tripoli.
He said NTC forces in Sirte had punched their way into the city centre in fierce fighting and were cleaning out pockets of resistance.
The inability to take Sirte, the most important remaining stronghold of Qaddafi supporters, more than six weeks after anti-Qaddafi fighters seized the capital, has stalled efforts by Libya's new leaders to set a timeline for elections.
The transitional leadership has said it will declare liberation complete after Sirte's capture because it will then hold all of the country's seaports and harbours.
Qaddafi supporters were also hanging on in Bani Walid, where NTC forces reported key gains after weeks of faltering advances that resulted in part from its challenging terrain. Bani Walid is believed to be harbouring high-level figures in the old regime.
Advancing fighters in Bani Walid have now driven Qaddafi forces out of the airport, said Abdullah Kenshil, who led failed talks in search of a peaceful surrender of the city.
"The takeover of Bani Walid is imminent," he said. "The fighters are only one kilometre from the heart of Bani Walid."
He claimed that Col Qaddafi's son Seif Al Islam was seen on Saturday distributing cash to his loyalists in Bani Walid.
"We are 100 per cent sure that he is inside, at least until last night," Mr Kenshil said.
Located 400km south-east of Tripoli, Sirte is key to the physical unity of the nation of 6 million people, since it lies roughly in the centre of the coastal plain where most Libyans live.
After a three-week siege from the outskirts, NTC forces launched an all-out assault on Sirte on Friday, pounding the city with tank shells, field cannons, rockets and heavy machine guns.
Qaddafi loyalists have put up fierce resistance and fired back with sniper rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Yesterday, the Ouagadougou Convention Centre, an ornate complex that Col Qaddafi frequently used for international summits, lay in ruins.
Throughout the siege, pro-Qaddafi fighters used the walled complex as a base and stronghold.
From there they were able to dominate surrounding neighbourhoods and assault NTC forces trying to enter Sirte.
At the nearby Ibn Sina Hospital, scores of wounded civilians crowded the corridors, lying on gurneys and floors to protect themselves from the shelling and gunfire. There was no electricity or water and a handful of medical students and nurses were the only medical staff.
NTC fighters roamed the hallways checking identifications and they detained about 25 people suspected of being Qaddafi loyalists or mercenaries.
"These are all Qaddafi people. They are snipers and we have captured them," said Ahmed Rahman, a field commander, as his soldiers cuffed a suspected pro-Qaddafi sniper.
Published: October 10, 2011 04:00 AM