orces of Libya’s new regime were looking to move in for the kill against Moamer Kadhafi’s diehards in his hometown Sirte on Wednesday after meeting little resistance and taking several key landmarks.
A day after seizing Sirte’s police headquarters, the National Transitional Council (NTC) forces were still locked in skirmishes around eastern districts and also targeted pockets of resistancefrom Kadhafi loyalists west of the city centre.
Hundreds of them, massed in dozens of pickups, fired off rockets from the west of the Mediterranean city whose seizure will enable the NTC to declare the liberation of Libya and clear the way for an election timetable.
An AFP correspondent said Sirte’s main square and entire waterfront was under NTC control, along with its fortress-like conference centre, university campus and hospital which the fighters all seized on Sunday.
“All our lines are now in place, the area is completely surrounded,” said NTC commander Zubayr Bakush.
But the new regime forces said they still faced pockets of resistance in the Dollar quarter to the west, where NTC fighters said a Kadhafi son, Mutassim, was holed up.
“The fighting is continuing in the Dollar district and neighbourhoods number one and number two. It also continues to force out families but there are fewer than yesterday,” said another NTC commander, Benharid Wissam.
Further to the east, a group of fighters threw petrol on a billboard of Kadhafi as others cheered and fired into the air and “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) blasted from a loudspeaker on a van.
“There are snipers in the buildings up there,” fighter Basit Divas told AFP, pointing to a neighbourhood of pock-marked villas, before hundreds of NTC troops advanced on the area backed by a barrage of heavy weapons fire.
The plight of stranded civilians raised the concerns of Human Rights Watch, which issued a statement on Wednesday calling on both sides to minimise harm to them and to ensure that prisoners are treated humanely.
“Commanders on the ground in Sirte need to make sure that their forces protect civilians and allow them to flee the combat zone,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at HRW.
“All prisoners should be treated humanely and transferred to the NTC authorities who can better ensure their safety,” he said, quoted in the statement.
The New York-based watchdog said that much of Sirte’s population of around 100,000 has already fled, but that an unknown number of civilians remain in the city centre.
New regime fighters in Sirte were buoyed on Tuesday night by a two-hour visit from NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, and said he visited the one-time Kadhafi showpiece Ouagadougou conference centre.
Medics at a field hospital in western Sirte reported five killed and 42 wounded on Tuesday, while medics in the east reported 11 dead — including six Kadhafi loyalists — and 52 wounded.
The NTC forces had besieged Sirte from September 15 before launching on Friday what they termed a “final assault” that has seen nearly 80 of their number killed and hundreds wounded, according to medics.
NATO warplanes, backing the NTC, overflew Sirte early on Wednesday without firing any missiles, an AFP correspondent reported, as the alliance said in its latest update that it struck six vehicles in Bani Walid.
In Bani Walid, an oasis 170 kilometres (105 miles) southeast of Tripoli, NTC fighters are also gearing for a renewed onslaught on the town which is another remaining bastion of forces loyal to the ousted dictator.
A withdrawal from intense fighting, in what the military called a “tactical pull back” earlier this week, enabled some civilians to flee Bani Walid on Tuesday, said an AFP reporter on the edge of town.
“We hear that there will be fighting. In the town, there is no doctor, no water, no electricity,” said a man in a white Mitsubishi that also carried four veiled women, adding “more than 20,000″ civilians were still in the town.
“There are mercenaries and militia in the streets,” said the man.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said the alliance was close to ending its mission in Libya, but despite NTC advances in Sirte, NATO “had no knowledge of the colonel’s whereabouts,” adding that Kadhafi “is not a target of our operation.”
With Mutassim believed to be in Sirte, another Kadhafi son, Seif al-Islam, who was once seen as the former leader’s successor, is thought to be in Bani Walid, possibly with his father.
Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, head of the NATO military committee, said that while an NTC victory in Sirte “will be an iconic moment”, the alliance will only end its air campaign once civilians are definitely out of harm’s way and the NTC is capable of keeping the whole country safe.