Libyan government troops launch their largest assault yet on Muammar Gaddafi’s home city of Sirte.
The city is the last major bastion of support for Gaddafi, and seizing it would put the National Transitional Council (NTC) in control of almost the entire country, two months after government troops took the capital Tripoli.
For weeks now, resistance from pro-Gaddafi loyalists has prevented a takeover of Sirte, where NTC fighters have been firing tank shells and artillery rounds from the east.
God willing, today we will capture Sirte. Colonel Ahmed El-Obeidi, NTC commander
Thousands of civilians have fled, with conditions inside the city described as desperate. “There are strong strikes in all directions. Today we will finish it. God willing, today we will capture Sirte,” said Colonel Ahmed El-Obeidi, an NTC commander.
Along with the desert town of Bani Walid, Sirte is one of the last centres still controlled by Gaddafi loyalists, who have been relying on snipers and rocket-propelled grenades to stop NTC troops from taking the city.
About 50 fighters and civilians injured in the fighting have been taken to a field hospital several kilometres west of Sirte. A team from the Reuters news agency driving from the south of Sirte toward the front line was forced to to pull back after coming under sniper fire.
NTC commander Mustafa Al-Ameen said sniper fire was proving the biggest obstacle. “The forces that went in managed to advance into Sirte, but we couldn’t go further because of sniper fire,” he said.
The attack by NTC troops took many Sirte residents by surprise. We didn’t know there was going to be an assault,” said Saeed Ramadan, whose vehicle had shrapnel holes and a broken window. “I couldn’t sleep last night, there was very heavy shelling. I was afraid for my kids and had to get them out.”
Hassan Briek said: “No one knew there was going to be an assault today. No one is sleeping. Food isn’t the problem. It’s the shelling.”
Medical workers who fled Sirte said patients at the Ibn Sina hospital were dying on the operating table because there was no oxygen and no fuel for the hospital’s generators.
Gaddafi and several of his sons are still at large more than seven weeks after rebel fighters stormed the capital and ended his 42-year rule. He is believed to be in hiding in southern Libya under the protection of tribes, crossing occasionally into neighbouring Niger.