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Fighting halts aid mission into Libyan siege city

Oct 3, 2011, 4:40 a.m.
Anti-Gaddafi forces fire Howitzers from an artillery line in Talatheen, east of Sirte 0ctober 2, 2011. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

By Rania El Gamal

SIRTE, Libya, Oct 3 - A Red Cross convoy carrying aid to relieve a worsening humanitarian crisis in Libya's besieged city of Sirte had to turn back on Monday because Libyan interim government forces unleashed a barrage of gunfire.

Aid agencies say they are concerned about the welfare of civilians inside Sirte, the hometown of deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who are trapped by the fighting and running out of food, water, fuel and medical supplies.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) took some supplies into Sirte last week, and it tried again on Monday, assembling a convoy of two trucks carrying aid, and accompanied by two four-wheel drive vehicles.

The convoy set off from a bridge a few kilometers west of Sirte but came to a halt after only about 100 meters because interim government forces started firing into the city.

They fired a heavy barrage of mortars, artillery, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft weapons just as the convoy was starting to move. The ICRC convoy turned around and headed back west, away from Sirte.

An anti-Gaddafi commander at the scene, Ismail Al-Sosi, told Reuters: "The rebels secured the way for the International Red Cross to go but as soon as they entered the city they returned because of the (pro-Gaddafi) militias firing. We did not start the firing. The militias started the firing."

However, a Reuters team who witnessed the incident said they saw no incoming fire from the Gaddafi loyalists inside Sirte.

Speaking just before the aborted attempt to get supplies into the city, an ICRC official said the humanitarian situation there was dire.

"We're trying to provide medical assistance and oxygen to the hospital in Sirte," said Hishem Khadrawy. "We are really concerned about the medical situation because of the conflict."

CIVILIANS TRAPPED

Civilians who were able to get out of Sirte spoke of many other people unable to leave and facing deteriorating conditions.

Boshnab Khalifa drove out of the city with his family. A woman in the back seat of his car clutched a Koran.

"We were in our apartment and then the wall was blown in by a rocket," he said. "The situation is very bad. Our family and our friends are trapped inside. They cannot get out. There are many families trapped inside, some have no gas for their cars, other (cars) have been damaged or destroyed."

Another resident fleeing Sirte, Mohammed Diap, said pro-Gaddafi militias were barring people from getting out.

"There is no food, no water, no power. Some are trapped because there is no fuel, others are trapped because of the militias," he said. "The people who are trapped inside are in danger. There is random shelling everywhere."

Libyans ended Gaddafi's 42-year rule in August when rebel fighters stormed the capital. Gaddafi and several of his sons are still at large and his supporters hold Sirte and the town of Bani Walid, south of Tripoli.

Gaddafi's supporters are too weak to regain power, but their resistance is frustrating the new rulers' efforts to start building the post-Gaddafi Libya.

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