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NATO bombing missions pound Gaddafi's hometown

Sep 25, 2011, 6:25 a.m.
Anti-Gaddafi fighters fire heavy artillery near Sirte, September 25, 2011. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

By Alexander Dziadosz and Sherine El Madany

SIRTE, Libya - NATO bombing raids hammered the Libyan city of Sirte on Sunday to clear the way for fighters with the Libyan interim government who are trying to capture Muammar Gaddafi's hometown.

But Gaddafi loyalists showed they were still a threat by attacking the desert oasis town of Ghadames, on the border with Algeria. The interim government said the attacks had been repulsed but some reports said fighting was still going on.

Earlier this weekend, the forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) had pushed to within a few hundred meters of the center of Sirte -- one of the last bastions of pro-Gaddafi resistance in Libya -- but later drew back to let the NATO jets do their work.

"Yesterday our freedom fighters attacked Sirte city from two sides. That doesn't mean that Sirte is free now, but it is an indication that Sirte will be free soon," said Ahmed Bani, NTC military spokesman in Tripoli.

"I'm asking now any militiamen fighting on the side of the tyrant (to realize) that the game is over."

On Sunday, the roar of jet engines could be heard overhead, and sporadic booms when NATO ordnance hit targets on the ground. One strike, giving off a deep thud, released a big cloud of smoke and dust over the south of the city.

"NATO has dropped a lot of bombs today," said one rebel fighter, who declined to give his name. "You can see the planes up above. They struck along here," he said, gesturing with his hand across the area south of the city center.

NATO's support for the anti-Gaddafi rebellion played a major part in toppling Gaddafi and the alliance says it will keep up its operations for as long as needed.

In a statement, the alliance said its sorties on Saturday in the vicinity of Sirte had struck targets including 2 command and control facilities, a military staging area, a storage bunker and radar facility, and 29 armed vehicles.

AWKWARD TARGET

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

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.

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