Libya finds mass grave from 1996 massacre
Sep 25, 2011, 8:22 a.m.
But it is an awkward proposition because pro-Gaddafi fighters there are well armed and many of the residents have family and tribal ties to Gaddafi.
Accounts from NTC fighters and people who had managed to leave Sirte indicated that pro-Gaddafi forces were trying to prevent civilians from fleeing, effectively using them as a human shield.
"Gaddafi's forces have surrounded the area, closed it off, by shooting at people," said a man called Youssef, who was driving away from Sirte with his wife. "There are a lot of people who want to get out but can't."
He said he and the other civilians from Sirte leaving the city on Sunday morning had escaped by cutting through the desert.
That was echoed by another man, called Abubakr, who was heading out of Sirte with his wife and four children in a car loaded with baby diapers and food.
"The situation is not good, really it is not good. It is terrible. There are (pro-Gaddafi) gangs unloading on people, shooting at them. It's really bad," he said.
A Gaddafi spokesman has accused NATO and NTC forces of killing several hundred civilians in strikes on Sirte.
That, along with the accounts that pro-Gaddafi forces are killing civilians, could not be independently verified because journalists have only been able to reach the parts of Sirte held by the interim government.
The attack by pro-Gaddafi forces on Ghadames underlined the fragility of the NTC's grip even on parts of the country nominally under its control.
The town, about 600 km (400 miles) south-west of Tripoli, is near a border crossing that pro-Gaddafi Libyans have used to flee into Algeria. Its old town, an intricate maze of mud walls, is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
"These militias have attacked our people in Ghadames city ... All the information we have got is that these groups are related to the son of Gaddafi, Khamis," the NTC's Bani told a news conference.
"Our freedom fighters have taken control of that area," he said, though he acknowledged the clashes were not completely over. "This problem will end soon. It's a matter of days."
NTC officials said the attack by Gaddafi loyalists had been repulsed on Saturday, but two Arabic television stations reported new clashes at dawn on Sunday.
"The battle is continuing," a witness called Mohammed Adeemus told the Al Jazeera channel. He said pro-Gaddafi snipers were inside the town, targeting civilians. "We call the NTC to intervene immediately," he said.
A month after ousting Gaddafi's forces from Tripoli and most of the country, the NTC is now facing challenges to its rule from only two main locations, Sirte and Bani Walid, a town about 170 km (105 miles) south-east of Tripoli.
Until both those places are captured, Libya's new rulers say they cannot begin the process of holding the first elections.
That leaves the country in a tense limbo where the only real authority comes from disparate factions of anti-Gaddafi fighters who are still armed and want a stake in the new Libya.
Attempts to capture Bani Walid have ended in chaos, and now the anti-Gaddafi forces appear to have switched their focus instead to taking Sirte.
"The symbolism of a Sirte victory would be much greater than winning Bani Walid," said Geoff Porter, an independent U.S. expert on north Africa.
"The collapse of Gaddafi's hometown would reverberate amongst the dead-enders and could facilitate the fall of Bani Walid," said Porter.
(Additional reporting by William Maclean and Joseph Logan in Tripoli, Emad Omar in Benghazi and John O'Donnell in Brussels; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Giles Elgood)