Sirte residents flee in droves

Fearing heavy fighting as forces loyal to Libya's new leadership prepare for a full-scale assault, residents of Sirte are streaming out of the embattled city, whose fall is likely to wrap up resistance by fighters loyal to former Libyan leader, Muammar Qadhafi.

The flood of Sirte residents travelling across the desert road in overloaded cars, pick-up vans and trucks followed a 48-hour notice to leave that was issued by the Transitional National Council (TNC), the anti-Qadhafi alliance that now loosely controls most of Libya. The coastal city of Sirte, is Mr. Qadhafi's hometown, and has been his political bastion. But a barrage of artillery exchanges, encirclement of the city by TNC loyalists, and sustained aerial bombardment by NATO warplanes is forcing residents to seek safe havens. Many are heading for the nearby city of Misurata, but some have decided to encamp in the desert, in the hope of an early return to their homes, after the upcoming battle for Sirte is over, which they assume will be brutal but short.

Hundreds of residents who are fleeing are narrating a tale of a full-scale humanitarian crisis that is developing in Mr. Qadhafi's stronghold, where his loyalists are readying themselves for a possible last stand, against TNC fighters, backed by NATO. For those inside the city, food supplies are running out, while hospitals, short of oxygen and essential medicines are hard-pressed to cope with the steady flow of the wounded.

On Saturday, a team of aid workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was given a safe-passage by the TNC and the pro-Qadhafi forces to visit hospitals in Sirte. The Red Cross managed to supply medical kits for 200 injured people, body bags and 400 liters of fuel to run generators. However, because of heavy firing that unexpectedly began, it was unable to visit the city's main, Ibn Sina hospital.

The urgency of residents to rush out of Sirte was partly driven by the panic caused by flyers, dropped by NATO planes, which asked people to leave immediately.

NATO wants the fighting to end quickly and has already signaled its keenness to wrap-up its mission in Libya. A top commander of the United States for Africa, Carter Ham has said that NATO could begin its withdrawal from Libya, as early as next week. Gen. Ham added that NATO's pull-out could begin as soon as the TNC had established "reasonable control" of the main population centers. He pointed out that finding Mr. Qadhafi and forcing his exit would not be the yardstick for ending NATO's mission in Libya.

Despite the heavy turbulence that is being experienced during the transition, there are some early signs, however fragile, of normality returning to Libya following Mr. Qadhafi's withdrawal from Tripoli.

The oil giant ConocoPhillips has become the first U.S. major to buy Libyan oil after international sanctions, imposed earlier had ended.

However, the oil sector, the backbone of Libya's future economy, has not been left unscathed during the course of the conflict. For instance, it is estimated that it would take around six months to restore some out of the four oil fields owned by Waha Oil Company, a Libyan-American Joint venture. Pro-Qadhafi forces have damaged some of the oil fields belonging to this company, which was, before the Libyan civil war began, pumping nearly half-a-million barrels of oil per day.

A Turkish Airlines plane from Istanbul on Saturday became the first international airliner, to ferry passengers to Tripoli's Mitiga airport, after the no fly zone over Libya was imposed in March.

But in the Libyan capital, tensions are running high, caused by friction between the armed fighters, many of whom are Islamists, who had descended to force Mr. Qadhafi's exit but have stayed on, and the local residents who are resenting their gun-toting culture as well as the proliferation of weaponry in their city.

[Source: By Atul Aneja, The Hindu, Dubai, 03Oct11]

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