Libyan forces enter Gaddafi stronghold Sirte

Sep 24, 2011, 4:23 a.m.
Fighters loyal to Libya's interim rulers circle near the front line from the centre of the city of Sirte September 24, 2011. REUTERS/Anis Mili

By Alexander Dziadosz

SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan provisional government forces backed by NATO warplanes stormed Sirte, one of Muammar Gaddafi's last strongholds, on Saturday but came under heavy sniper fire.

Black smoke billowed over the town as National Transitional Council (NTC) forces massed in Zafran Square about 1 km (half a mile) from its center. Gunfire could be heard from the town center as NTC fighters moved tanks and mortars into the square.

Pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns and loaded with NTC fighters raced into the town. NTC forces also advanced from the south of Sirte, the deposed leader's hometown.

"They have snipers above the mosques, above the buildings. They're using the houses and public buildings," NTC fighter El-Tohamy Abuzein told Reuters from his position on a roundabout in Zafran Square.

NATO would not comment on its operations in Sirte on Saturday. It said its planes hit a number of targets on Friday, including an ammunition depot and an anti-aircraft gun.

Several NTC fighters said they had orders to hold back on an advance on the town center because of the possibility of NATO attacks.

A large cloud of smoke over the town was the result of a strike on an ammunition dump, fighters said.

At the western gate, gunners fired artillery toward the town. Both sides exchanged volleys of rockets.

NTC forces have previously retreated from Sirte and the other final Gaddafi stronghold, Bani Walid, after poorly organized assaults met fierce resistance from loyalists.

(Writing by Barry Malone; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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