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Libyan NTC forces fight for Gaddafi's home town

Sep 24, 2011, 10:25 a.m.
Vehicles travel on a road as smoke rises from a fire at a naval base in Tripoli September 24, 2011. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

By Alexander Dziadosz

SIRTE (Reuters) - Libyan interim government forces backed by NATO warplanes swarmed into Muammar Gaddafi's home town of Sirte on Saturday but encountered heavy sniper fire as they tried to win control of one of the deposed leader's last strongholds.

Black smoke billowed over Sirte as National Transitional Council (NTC) forces massed in Zafran Square about 1 km (half a mile) from the center of the Mediterranean coastal town.

Gunfire could be heard from the town center as the forces moved tanks and mortars to the square. Pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns and loaded with NTC fighters raced into the town and ambulances hurtled back and forth ferrying casualties.

"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 in Zafran Square.

NATO, whose warplanes played a vital role in the six-month war that toppled Gaddafi, said its planes hit a number of targets in Sirte in the last 24 hours, including an ammunition depot and an anti-aircraft gun.

It said in a statement the air attacks had been mounted to protect civilians from Gaddafi forces inside the town.

"Among the reports emerging from Sirte are executions, hostage-taking, and the calculated targeting of individuals, families, and communities within the city," NATO said.

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

Though NTC forces have tightened their grip in the past few days on southern oasis towns which sided with Gaddafi, that progress has been overshadowed by unsuccessful efforts to take the last strongholds.

NTC commanders say their advance on Sirte has been hampered by the presence of large numbers of civilians, many of whom have fled in the past week.

A Gaddafi spokesman has accused NATO of killing several hundred civilians with its strikes on Sirte. Communications have been largely cut off since the fall of the capital Tripoli last month.

Taking Sirte would be a huge boost for the NTC as it tries to establish credibility and a devastating blow for Gaddafi, who is still widely believed to be on the run inside Libya.

"FORBIDDEN" WEAPONS FOUND

NTC leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said on Saturday interim government forces had found suspected internationally banned weapons near the towns of Sabha and Wadan, but he gave no details about them.

"There are weapons believed to be internationally forbidden, and they are under our control," he told a news conference at the NTC's headquarters in its eastern Benghazi base.

"We will seek help from local experts and the international community to get rid of these weapons in a suitable way."

The NTC, the political leadership of the rebel movement which rose up against Gaddafi's 42-year-rule and drove him from power with support from the West and several Arab nations, faces a challenge in trying to impose its authority across Libya.

It said last week it would move to Tripoli only after its forces were in full control of Libyan territory, contradicting an earlier pledge to move the interim administration from Benghazi around mid-September.

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