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Anti-Gaddafi forces seize strategic highway in Sirte

Forces loyal to Libya's National Transitional Council have made gains in their ongoing attempt to seize Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi's hometown and last major stronghold. They claim to have seized a major highway that opens the way for a final assault.


AFP - Forces from Libya's interim regime scored a strategic goal Saturday in their push to capture Sirte, seizing a highway that opens the way to a final assault on a key base of troops loyal to Moamer Kadhafi.

But with thousands of civilians still trapped in the ex-leader's hometown, NTC commanders said they were pacing their advance to evacuate some of those who had not fled and to avoid losses from friendly fire.

Attacking from the east, National Transitional Council (NTC) fighters wrested control of the four-lane avenue that leads to the south of the coastal city and were advancing into the centre, an AFP correspondent witnessed.

The road links the centre to the Ouagadougou conference centre, a key base of pro-Kadhafi fighters still holding out after days of heavy pounding by NTC tank, cannon and rocket fire and ground assaults.

Saturday's fighting, which medics at a field hospital on the western of town said had wounded 20 people, centred on the Ouagadougou complex and the nearby university, where Kadhafi loyalists have been responding with only sporadic mortar and small arms fire.

After launching on Friday what they called a final assault on Sirte with a barrage of rocket and artillery fire, the NTC forces still faced stiff resistance by late in the day.

"We are surrounding them in the centre of the city in an area of just a few square kilometres (miles)," NTC commander Nasser Abu Zian told AFP.

With the NTC awaiting the capture of Sirte to declare the liberation of the whole of Libya, its fighters resumed the assault on Saturday after a sandstorm eased, boosting visibility.

Civilians trickled out on foot, including a woman who carried a child in her arms and a man lugging suitcases, as NTC forces stopped cars for identity checks and searches.

"We just want to go somewhere that is safe. I hadn't been out of my house for three weeks because of all the firing. Lots of houses in my area were hit," said Sudanese labourer Abdulrahim Kabash.

Milad Gahnatri, whom the NTC forces suspected was Mauritanian, appealed to be let through to seek medical treatment for two pale-looking men in the back of his car.

"These are my brothers. They need kidney dialysis three times a week but the Ibn Sina hospital is damaged by bombing. There are many patients in there and they are all afraid of the firing from all sides," he said.

From inside Sirte, a commander said "we also took a school. We are moving through the Mauritanian Quarter toward the centre of the city, but we have had to slow our advance because of families trapped in the zone and the risk of friendly fire."

Saying there were dead everywhere among the houses, Naji Mismari added that "we freed 17 families trapped by the fighting and evacuated them in our own vehicles."

Earlier, NTC fighters overlooking the Ouagadougou centre said its concrete bunkers were proving tougher than they originally thought.

"It has been hit for days by tank guns and rockets, but it hasn't budged. Its paint has hardly been scratched," said one of them, armed with a Kalashnikov.

The number of NTC fighters at the front was lower than on Friday, when hundreds poured into Sirte at dawn on heavily armed pick-ups.

Late Friday, interim defence minister Jalal al-Digheily said the end of the conflict was near.

"We are very close to the end of the war and peace will be restored all over Libya," he told reporters in Tripoli on the occasion of visits by his British and Italian counterparts, Liam Fox and Ignazio La Russa.

"There are still some hot spots but they won't resist very long," he added of Sirte and Bani Walid, a desert oasis 170 kilometres (100 miles) southeast of the Libyan capital.

And on Saturday, NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil said "the battle for Sirte and Bani Walid will be very vicious."

He was speaking at a news conference with British Defence Minister Fox and Italy's La Russa.

Fox, whose country along with France spearheaded the NATO air war, said: "The message for those who are still fighting for Kadhafi is 'the game is over,' that they are rejected by the Libyan people."

He also said NATO will keep up its military operations over Libya for as long as remnants of Kadhafi's regime present a risk to the people.

As the battle for Sirte appeared to be nearing its end, the United Nations urged the NTC, which has ruled most of the oil-rich country since its forces overran Tripoli on August 23, to avoid any revenge against Kadhafi loyalists.

"Libya's revolution is based upon the demand for human rights and dignity," UN chief Ban Ki-moon's special representative, Ian Martin, said in a statement on Friday.

"I appeal to all to respect the calls made by the National Transitional Council that there should be no revenge even against those responsible for war crimes and other grave violations."

He called for Kadhafi supporters or others accused of wrongdoing to be detained and brought to justice in accordance with the rule of law.

Outside Bani Walid, an NTC commander told AFP on Friday that a new mediation attempt was underway with tribes there, but if it failed a fresh assault would be launched.

"To avoid a bloodbath," Omar Fifao said a delegation had been sent to negotiate with tribes in Bani Walid, some of whose number are fighting alongside Kadhafi forces.

NTC commanders have said Kadhafi's most prominent son, Seif al-Islam, is in Bani Walid and possibly Kadhafi as well.

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