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Anti-Gaddafi fighters claim former stronghold of Sirte

Forces fighting for Libya's National Transitional Council on Thursday said they had captured the last areas held by troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi in his hometown and former stronghold of Sirte.


AFP - New regime troops were poised to declare victory Thursday in their long siege of Moamer Kadhafi loyalists in their last redoubt in his hometown Sirte, a commander told AFP on the front line.

"This is the last day of the fight," said Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Abdel Salam of the Misrata Brigade.

"Within some hours we will announce that Sirte is free."

Abdel Salam said that National Transitional Council troops were carrying out a mopping up operation in the city's Number Two residential neighbourhood, the last redoubt of Kadhafi loyalists in all of Libya.

"We are now inside to look for Kadhafi fighters hiding in the houses and for guns and weapons. We started at 6 am (0400 GMT) this morning," he said.

An AFP correspondent heard sporadic gunfire in the neighbourhood during the morning as NTC fighters went house to house to root out the snipers who have inflicted heavy losses in their ranks in recent days.

Libya's new rulers have said that only once Sirte has fallen will they declare the country's liberation and begin the transition to an elected government after 42 years of Kadhafi's iron-fisted rule.

Abdel Salam said that vehicles suspected to be carrying senior Kadhafi regime figures had broken out of the neighbourhood and that NTC troops were giving chase.

NTC commanders have said that they suspect several top Kadhafi regime figures were holed up in the neighbourhood, perhaps including the fugitive strongman himself.

"We believe there are four to five important people inside," eastern front operations chief Wesam bin Hamaibi said after a meeting of top commanders on Saturday.

"We are sure that (Kadhafi's son and national security chief) Mutassim and (ousted defence minister) Abu Bakr Yunis are inside," he said.

"We also believe that Seif al-Islam (another of Kadhafi's sons) and Kadhafi (himself) are possibly inside."

An NTC fighter told AFP that troops advancing from the eastern and western sides of the neighborhood had met in the centre as they pressed their final assault, which already saw the capture of the adjacent Dollar neighbourhood on Tuesday night.

"In the middle of the night we took control of the neighbourhood," said NTC fighter Abdul Basht.

"Now the fighters from the west and the east have mixed and have filled the neighbourhood," he added.

"We are conducting house-to-house searches and cleaning operations. We have captured many important people. There is hardly any resistance from the Kadhafi forces. The major fight is over."

When NTC fighters overran Kadhafi forces' penultimate bastion, the desert oasis of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli on Monday, his loyalists simply melted away leaving the victors to capture only small numbers of African troops.

NTC fighters suffered heavy losses in the battle for the last enclave of Kadhafi forces, an area that by late Wednesday had been reduced to less than a square kilometre (0.4 square miles).

The Sirte neighbourhood had been completely cut off by the besieging NTC forces who controlled the entire seafront of the Mediterranean coastal city as well as all of its landward sides.

Seven NTC fighters were killed and 76 wounded on Wednesday, medics said. At least 11 NTC fighters were killed and 95 wounded on Tuesday.

NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil said Libya's new rulers would compensate the wounded as well as the families of the more than 25,000 people killed during the eight-month uprising.

"Families of the martyrs, the wounded and the fighters themselves will be compensated," he said, urging Libyans to be patient, however, because of lack of funds.

Sirte once had 100,000 inhabitants, almost all of whom have fled. Fierce artillery battles and heavy gunfire over the past month have not left a single building intact, while looting has become commonplace as NTC fighters take their revenge on the Kadhafi bastion.

Among the few natives of Sirte in NTC ranks, anger at the destruction wreaked on their home city by their comrades runs deep.

"We are not happy about what has been happening in our city. It is the only city that is getting so much destruction," said Ibrahim Alazhry.

The close quarter fighting in the final battle for Sirte left little scope for NATO to offer air support as part of its UN-mandated operation to protect civilians. The alliance carried out no air strikes at all on Wednesday, it said in its latest update.


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