Libyan forces plan "final" attack on Sirte

Bullet-ridden cars carrying terrified, ill and hungry civilians crawled out of Muammar Gaddafi's home town on Tuesday as anti-Gaddafi fighters said they were planning a final attack.

Government forces who had for three weeks been pinned down by artillery and rocket fire on the eastern edges of Sirte were able to advance several kilometers (miles) into the city on Monday, capturing the southern district of Bouhadi.

Commanders of forces loyal to the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) are now talking of a "final" huge push to take the town as, backed by NATO warplanes, they continue their bombardment of pro-Gaddafi positions inside.

Aid agencies say they are concerned about the welfare of civilians inside Sirte, one of the last pro-Gaddafi bastions left in the country, who are trapped by the fighting and running out of food, water, fuel and medicine.

Concerns about the humanitarian crisis have focused on the Ibn Sina hospital. Medical workers who fled Sirte said patients were dying on the operating table because there was no oxygen and no fuel for the hospital's generators.

"It's a disaster," a doctor who gave her name as Nada told Reuters as she fled the city on Tuesday. "They are hitting the hospital. Two kids have died there. There is random shooting at the hospital from both sides."

On the east of the city on Tuesday, NTC fighters said they were trying to clear a corridor to the hospital but that they were being hampered by pro-Gaddafi snipers.

Gaddafi's spokesman, and some civilians leaving Sirte, have blamed NATO bombing and NTC shelling for killing civilians and destroying buildings in the town.

NATO and the NTC say it is pro-Gaddafi fighters who are the biggest threat to civilians, saying loyalist forces have been executing those they believe to be NTC sympathizers and forcing others to fight.

Red Cross workers have managed to deliver supplies to Ibn Sina in recent days and a spokesman for the organization in Geneva confirmed that they had seen damage.

A Red Cross convoy delivered oxygen and other urgently needed medical supplies to the hospital on Monday after an earlier attempt was aborted because of heavy fighting.

"The situation on the ground was very tense with ongoing fighting," Red Cross delegate Hichem Khadraoui said.

"Under such conditions, we had to limit ourselves - after obtaining clearances from all the parties concerned - to bringing in the most urgently needed humanitarian aid."

"My Father Died in my Arms"

Civilians driving out of the town on Tuesday looked in poorer condition than people had in previous days, Reuters journalists on the east and west of Sirte said.

Several people said that they were ill and one man showed how he now needed string to hold up his trousers because he had not had enough to eat in the last three weeks.

Ali Durgham, leaving the city with several relatives, told Reuters that his father had been killed by a shell when he went to the mosque on Monday and that his uncle was seriously injured.

"My father died in my arms," he said, weeping heavily, as his mother watched. "I buried him yesterday."

Medical staff outside Sirte who had treated wounded civilians fleeing the fighting said they had been told the corridors of Ibn Sina were full of patients and that treatment was being given only to pro-Gaddafi fighters or members of his tribe.

A military spokesman for the interim government, the National Transitional Council, told a television channel that Gaddafi's son Mutassim was hiding in the hospital.

"Our revolutionaries (in Sirte) are fighting those who are accomplices of the tyrant in crimes against the Libyan people," Ahmed Bani told Doha-based Libya TV.

"They are a group of killers and mercenaries led by Mutassim Gaddafi who is now in the Ibn Sina hospital in Sirte to avoid being hit, according to newly received information."

Libyans ended Gaddafi's 42-year rule in August when rebel fighters stormed the capital. Gaddafi and several of his sons are still at large and his supporters hold Sirte and the town of Bani Walid, south of Tripoli.

De facto Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said on Monday the NTC would set in motion the process of democratic elections once Sirte was captured, instead of waiting until the whole country is under their control.

Jibril told a news conference in the city of Benghazi: "Bani Walid would be dealt with as a renegade region."

A city of about 75,000 people, Sirte holds symbolic importance. Gaddafi transformed his birthplace from a sleepy fishing town into Libya's second capital.

[Source: By Tim Gaynor and Rania El Gamal, Reuters, Sirte, 04Oct11]

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