SIRTE, Libya — Forces of Libya’s new regime were on the verge of claiming full control of Moamer Kadhafi’s hometown Sirte after seizing its showpiece conference centre and university from his diehards on Sunday.
The fortress-like Ouagadougou conference centre, constructed to host pan-African summits, has been a major objective of the National Transitional Council forces since they launched a September 15 offensive on the city.
“We control 100 percent of the Ouagadougou centre,” said Mohammed al-Fayad, an NTC military chief, adding the capture “opens the way” for his forces to overrun the city centre.
An AFP correspondent on the spot confirmed the NTC fighters were in control of the landmark complex.
“We are ready to take the centre” of Sirte “within a matter of hours,” said Fayad.
“It is only a question of coordination between (Misrata fighters on) the western front and (Benghazi fighters on) the eastern front. We just need time.”
As he spoke, NTC fighters spread throughout the sprawling complex, tearing down portraits of the fugitive Kadhafi and the green flags of his fallen 42-year regime.
They were soon sent scurrying for cover behind walls and cars as the din of armed clashes in the distance grew louder and nearer.
Later, the shooting abated and they were able to advance another kilometre north along streets littered with debris and lined by pock-marked buildings towards the heart of the city.
A day after taking a four-lane avenue into the centre, the NTC forces also took control of Sirte’s university and its new campus, a huge site where Kadhafi snipers had been picking them off from unfinished buildings.
“We have taken the university… we have liberated the area from Kadhafi’s dogs,” NTC commander Nasser Zamud said, as hundreds of his fighters roamed the campus.
“The fighting has been difficult; there were a lot of snipers,” Zamud said of the assault on the university in the Mediterranean city’s southeast.
The Misrata Military Council said NTC forces now also controlled the Ibn Sina hospital, but this could not be independently confirmed.
“Misurata thwar (fighters) dominate the Ibn Sina hospital” and are evacuating the patients regardless of their allegiance “for fear of the random bombing by the ousted dictator,” it said in a statement.
NTC fighters at a Kadhafi palace about 500 metres (yards) from Ibn Sina also told AFP the hospital was now under their control.
At the palace, half of which was destroyed by NATO air raids according to the NTC fighters, a group of men jumped up and down on a four-poster bed, while others outside fired Grad rockets into the city or relaxed in the shade.
Despite the celebrations, the NTC’s battle for Sirte has come at a heavy cost.
The ferocity of the Kadhafi forces’ resistance in Sirte and their other main bastion, Bani Walid, has surprised the new regime, with NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil admitting the battle was “very vicious.”
There were no immediate figures for any casualties on Sunday.
Medics say that 23 NTC fighters have been killed and almost 330 wounded since Friday, when they launched what they are calling their final assault on the Kadhafi bastion.
Thousands of civilians are still trapped in Sirte, and NTC commanders said they have been pacing their advance to evacuate some of those who had not fled and to avoid losses from friendly fire.
Nasser Hamid, a resident fleeing with his wife, three children and niece, said they managed sneak out in their loaded car under cover of darkness early on Sunday.
“Our flat was destroyed by machine gun fire. We stayed in the stairwell. The children were upset because their toys were destroyed,” Hamid told AFP.
“We waited so long because the Kadhafi loyalists said if we left, they would never let us come back.”
His wife Salima Ali Omar said forces loyal to the old regime appeared to be fighting a losing battle.
“The (Kadhafi) volunteers say they are fed up, they don’t want to fight any more. They are throwing their guns in the rubbish bins,” she said.
On the western front, NTC forces also controlled most of the so-called 700-house complex, but they came under sniper fire as they advanced on Sunday, another AFP correspondent reported.
“We’re waiting for reinforcements to come and then we will move forward,” NTC commander Ahmed Brasali said from a frontline position.
“We were attacked this morning by 10 Kadhafi loyalists on foot; they fired RPGs and Kalashnikovs. We killed them all,” he told AFP.
The gains inside Sirte are seen as crucial by the NTC, which awaits its capture to declare the liberation of the whole of Libya, clearing the way to draw up a timetable for elections.
The council has ruled most of the oil-rich country since its forces overran Tripoli on August 23, forcing Kadhafi and his inner circle to flee.
NTC commanders believe that one of Kadhafi’s sons, Mutassim, is holed up 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.
New regime fighters have been stationed for weeks outside Bani Walid, an oasis 170 kilometres (100 miles) southeast of Tripoli, and the frustration is beginning to show.
“I want to fight but I am awaiting orders,” said a young man at a mosque some 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of Bani Walid which serves as a base.
Field commander Yusef al-Sharif insists the campaign for Bani Walid is progressing.
“Kadhafi’s men have left Bani Walid, they are fighting 10 kilometres (six miles) from the city centre,” he said.
“We control 90 percent of the sector. We just have to push the pro-Kadhafi guys out of the outskirts and tackle the snipers.”