Libyan NTC forces thrust deep into Gaddafi home town
Sep 24, 2011, 3:59 p.m.
By Alexander Dziadosz
SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan interim government forces backed by NATO warplanes have mounted their deepest thrust into Muammar Gaddafi's home town of Sirte, getting as close as half a kilometer from the center of the deposed leader's coastal stronghold.
Gunfire could be heard coming from the town center and black smoke rose as National Transitional Council (NTC) forces massed in Zafran Square on Saturday and moved up tanks and mortars. Pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns and loaded with fighters raced in.
Field medics said two NTC soldiers had been killed and more than 20 wounded in the fighting against pro-Gaddafi forces.
"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.
The NTC assault plan has divided Sirte into three zones. "They took area number one and they are fighting in area number two and they are holding there until morning," NTC commander Fathi Bafhaaga told Reuters.
Reuters journalists at the scene said it was the deepest NTC fighters had got into Sirte, but it was not possible to verify whether the NTC was holding onto its gains overnight.
Taking Sirte would be a huge boost for the NTC as it tries to establish credibility as a government, and a devastating blow for Gaddafi, widely believed to be on the run inside Libya.
NATO, whose warplanes played a vital role in the six-month war that toppled Gaddafi, said its planes had hit a number of targets in Sirte in the previous 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 have 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 that 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 in strikes on Sirte. Communications have been largely cut off since the fall of the capital Tripoli last month.
"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."