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Erdogan to visit Libya as Sirte battle rages

Sep 15, 2011, 10:07 p.m.
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, National Transitional Council (NTC) head Mustafa Abdul Jalil (C) and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron join hands in Benghazi, September 15, 2011. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By Joseph Logan and Emma Farge

TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI (Reuters) - Turkey's prime minister heads to Libya on Friday, a day after the French and British leaders won a hero's welcome there for helping to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi and in the midst of a fierce battle over Gaddafi's home town.

Tayyip Erdogan, on a North African tour to assert Ankara's regional influence, will be hoping to reap political and economic dividends from Libya's new rulers for his country's help in their struggle to end Gaddafi's 42-year grip on power.

After nearly seven months of fighting, anti-Gaddafi forces backed by NATO air power control most of Libya, including oil-producing centers and the capital Tripoli, which they seized last month.

But they have met fierce resistance in a handful of pro-Gaddafi bastions such as the desert town of Bani Walid, the southern outpost of Sabha and Sirte, Gaddafi's birthplace 450 km (280 miles) east of Tripoli which they tried to take on Thursday.

"They have now entered the city. There was a coordinated push from the south, east and west and from along the coast. I'm not sure how far they have been able to enter," said Abdulrahman Busin, military spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC).

"They are coming under heavy fire. There is a particular problem with snipers."

Gaddafi's spokesman said he had thousands of supporters.

"We are telling you that as of tomorrow there will be atrocious attacks by NATO and their agents on the ground on the resisting towns of Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha," Mousa Ibrahim told Syrian-based Arrai television late on Thursday.

The television said 16 people had been killed in Sirte, including women and children, as a result of NATO bombing, and that Gaddafi forces had destroyed a NATO warship and several vehicles. None of the reports could be independently verified.

In Bani Walid, which anti-Gaddafi forces are wary of storming for fear of alienating a powerful local tribe, residents were still trying to flee, and reported that others were trapped by gunmen.

TURKEY'S ROLE

France and Britain spearheaded the air campaign that ousted Gaddafi, but Turkey -- which had contracts worth $15 billion in Libya -- backed it reluctantly and was slow to recognize those now leading the oil-rich north African state.

A Turkish ship did play a key role in evacuating civilians from the coastal town of Misrata while it was besieged by Gaddafi forces, and Ankara has recently been vocal in supporting the NTC and provided it with $300 million in cash, loans and other aid.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron were told their support may be repaid in business contracts with the oil-rich North African state.

Turkish companies with business in Libya are hoping the Council will honor pending payments once assets are unfrozen, and Energy Minister Taner Yildiz has said he wants state-owned oil and gas exploration company TPAO to resume oil exploration and production work in Libya if security is established.

That depends to a large extent on the fate of Gaddafi who, wanted by the International Criminal Court, is rumored to be hiding in one of the loyalist strongholds.

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