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Red Cross gets medicine into Libya's besieged Sirte

Oct 1, 2011, 11:56 a.m.
An anti-Gaddafi fighter who was injured amid heavy shelling on the roundabout in Sirte receives medical treatment at a field hospital, 20 km (12 miles) east of Sirte, October 1, 2011. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

By Rania El Gamal and Joseph Logan

SIRTE (Reuters) - Aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) brought medical supplies into ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's besieged hometown of Sirte on Saturday as fears grew that a humanitarian disaster was unfolding there.

The chairman of the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdel Jalil, said its forces had called a two-day truce to allow civilians to leave as people streamed out of Sirte by the hundreds.

The truce order was issued on Friday but heavy rocket and mortar fire continued from both sides on Saturday, even though NTC commanders outside the town said they were trying to let civilians out.

NTC fighters in Sirte told Reuters that NATO planes had dropped flyers urging civilians to flee the fighting.

The prolonged battle for Sirte, encircled by anti-Gaddafi fighters and hit by regular NATO air strikes, has trapped people inside the town of about 100,000 through several fierce assaults over two weeks.

Fighting continued to the west and east of the town on Saturday. Loud thuds were heard coming from the town center, and white smoke billowed into the sky while NATO planes roared overhead.

A truckload of supplies and a car carrying European ICRC workers were allowed to pass checkpoints manned by fighters loyal to the NTC.

The ICRC delivered medical kits for treating up to 200 people wounded in the fighting to Sirte hospital, as well as fuel to run the generator, a spokesman in Geneva told Reuters.

But the team of four aid workers, who also had security clearance from pro-Gaddafi forces, heard constant gunfire and so were not able to go into the hospital, the spokesman said.

"They went to the hospital but were not able to see patients, they didn't go into the wards," Marcal Izard said.

Doctors at the hospital -- which had no power -- told the aid workers there were 200 patients inside.

Izard said the ICRC team saw that the water tower of the hospital had been hit and damaged during the fighting.

A LONG WAR

Fighting remained heavy at a roundabout in the east of the town where NTC fighters have been held at bay for six days by artillery and sniper fire from pro-Gaddafi forces.

NTC commanders said the snipers were the main factor frustrating their advance. Reuters journalists have seen some anti-Gaddafi fighters run from the front under fire.

On Saturday, when a truck careened back from the roundabout carrying a dead NTC fighter, his comrades fired into the air and began to shout, "Muammar, the rat! He is killing us!"

Gaddafi loyalists and some civilians blamed NATO air strikes and shelling by NTC forces for killing civilians.

NATO and the NTC deny that. They and some civilians coming from the town say pro-Gaddafi fighters are executing people they believe to be NTC sympathizers.

The NTC is under pressure to strike a balance between a prolonged fight that would delay its efforts to govern and a quick victory which, if too bloody, could worsen divisions and embarrass the fledgling government and its foreign backers.

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