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Libyan forces close in on Gaddafi loyalists in Sirte

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-09-27

Fighters loyal to the Transitional National Council tightened their siege of ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi's hometown on Monday, two days after a failed attempt to take hold of the coastal city.

REUTERS - Libyan provisional government forces backed by NATO warplanes raced through the eastern outskirts of Sirte on Monday, closing in on Muammar Gaddafi loyalists holed up in one of the last two bastions of the deposed leader.

Thick, black smoke billowed into the air as National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters battled loyalist troops at a roundabout about 2 km (1.2 mile) from the centre of Gaddafi’s home town, Reuters journalists said. 
The thud of large explosions could be heard as NATO aircraft roared overhead. NTC fighters said the jets were striking the positions of Gaddafi loyalists.
In a separate development, Libya’s interim justice minister said the Lockerbie case was closed, apparently rebuffing a UK request for help which could lead to others, even Gaddafi, being charged over the 1988 airliner bombing.     
The advance in Sirte came two days after anti-Gaddafi fighters west of the city drove to within a few hundred metres of its centre before pulling back on Sunday to make way for NATO strikes.   
On the western edges of Sirte on Monday, NTC fighters and Gaddafi loyalists traded heavy machine gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and artillery rounds.
Snipers loyal to Gaddafi could be seen on building rooftops.
NATO aircraft flew overhead.
NATO would not comment on its operations in Sirte on Monday.  It said its planes hit eight targets on Sunday, including ammunition stores and rocket launchers. 
Interim government forces have previously retreated from Sirte and the other remaining Gaddafi stronghold, Bani Walid, after poorly organised attacks met fierce resistance.
Sirte lies between Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi, both now held by the NTC whose rebel fighters overran the capital five weeks ago after six months of fighting.
Taking Sirte would be a huge boost for the NTC, which is trying to establish credibility as a government able to unite Libya’s fractious tribes and regions, and a blow for Gaddafi, widely believed to be in hiding somewhere in Libya.
Humanitarian organisations have raised the alarm over conditions for civilians cut off in Sirte and in Bani Walid to the south.
“God willing we can enter Sirte by tonight,” NTC fighter, Emad al-Amamy, told Reuters on the eastern edge of the city earlier on Monday. 
Civilians trapped
Scores of civilians in cars laden down with personal belongings continued to stream out of the town to both the east and west. NTC fighters checked them, looking for wanted figures among those who were, and may still be, loyal to Gaddafi.
International aid groups are demanding access.
“We are very concerned about the people inside and near Bani Walid and Sirte,” Georges Comninos, who heads the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Libya, said in a statement.
“Food reserves and medical supplies are reportedly running short in both cities. We are receiving many appeals to help the wounded and come to the aid of civilians generally.”
NTC fighters and people who have fled Sirte have alleged that pro-Gaddafi fighters were trying to prevent civilians from getting out of the city, effectively using them as human shields.
“Gaddafi’s forces have surrounded the area, closed it off, by shooting at people,” said a man called Youssef, driving away from Sirte with his wife. “There are a lot of people who want to get out but can’t.” 
Gaddafi’s fugitive spokesman said on Monday that he was in Sirte when it came under attack on Sunday but he refused to comment on the toppled leader’s whereabouts.
“I was yesterday in Sirte,” Moussa Ibrahim told Reuters in a satellite phone call. “The situation is quite bad.”
Ibrahim said Gaddafi was in Libya and “very happy that he is doing his part in this great saga of resistance”.
He added that the humanitarian situation in Sirte was dire because the hospital in the city had run out of medical supplies and equipment, and there was a total power outage.
Border attack
Gaddafi loyalists showed they were still a threat by launching an attack on Sunday on the desert oasis town of Ghadames, on the border with Algeria, NTC officials said.
That underlined the fragility of the NTC’s grip even on parts of the country nominally under its control. The town, about 600 km southwest of Tripoli, is near a border crossing Gaddafi loyalists have used to flee into Algeria. Its old town, a maze of mud walls, is a UNESCO world heritage site. 
Libya’s de facto Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril told a U.N.  Security Council meeting on Libya that Gaddafi could still destabilise North Africa and that the NATO-led military alliance should continue operations in his country as long as the toppled leader’s loyalists were killing civilians.
The “mission is far from accomplished,” Jibril said. Asked later by reporters when the Western alliance should end its operations, Jibril said, “When there is no killing (of) civilians in Libya.” NATO agreed last week to extend its air-and-sea campaign in Libya for up to 90 days.   
The NTC also said on Monday its fighters had discovered a mass grave at site near Sirte. Spokesman Jalal el-Gallal said fighters had retrieved the corpses of four individuals who appeared to have been killed recently.
When it became apparent that further bodies could be buried there, they stopped digging and contacted the Red Cross for assistance, he said.
Another mass grave containing bodies of more than 1,000 people killed by Gaddafi’s security forces in a 1996 massacre of prison inmates in Tripoli was found on Sunday.
The mass grave in Tripoli was the first physical evidence of the Abu Salim prison massacre, an event that was widely spoken of in Libya but covered up for years.
The uprising that toppled Gaddafi was ignited by protests partly linked to the Abu Salim massacre.
Regarding the Lockerbie case, a spokeswoman for the Scottish Crown Office said earlier it had asked the NTC to make available any documentary evidence and witnesses because the attack remained an open enquiry.
Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, a former Libyan agent, was convicted of the bombing which killed 270 people. Scotland released him on compassionate grounds in 2009.
His release and return to a hero’s welcome in Libya infuriated many in the United States, home to most of the victims.


Date created : 2011-09-26


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