Libya government tanks try to end Sirte resistance
Libyan government forces pushed tanks deep into the city of Sirte on Friday to try to smash the last pocket of resistance by loyalists of ousted leader Muammar Gaddafi in his home town.
The mostly untrained militia army of the National Transitional Council (NTC) has gradually tightened its strangle-hold around Sirte for weeks in a chaotic struggle that has cost scores of lives and left thousands homeless.
It has also held up the attempt by Libya's new leaders to try to build a democratic government, as they say the process will begin only after the city is captured.
NTC commanders say Gaddafi's die-hard loyalists now only control an area measuring about 700 meters (yards) north to south, and around 1.5 km east to west in a residential neighborhood mostly of apartment blocks.
"We are going to engage them with tanks and heavy artillery first, after that we will send in the pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft guns, then the infantry," said Abdul Hadi Doghman, commander of the Dat al-Ramal brigade, one of the many loosely organized militias besieging the trapped Gaddafi forces.
The biggest obstacle to taking the town has been Gaddafi's snipers hiding in the buildings. Tanks are used to hit the buildings from close range and dislodge the snipers.
Green flags, the banner of Gaddafi's 42-year rule, flew above many of the buildings in the loyalist enclave. An occasional sniper shot zipped past as the government forces cleaned their weapons and prepared to do battle another day.
But there was no extra build-up of troops on Friday and the NTC forces did not appear to be preparing for a final push.
Gaddafi himself is believed to be hiding somewhere in the vast Libyan desert. A senior NTC official denied reports by other officials in the new government that Gaddafi's son Mo'tassim had been captured in Sirte.
Gaddafi's encircled forces in Sirte can have no hope of victory, but still fight on, inflicting dozens of casualties with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and small arms.
One field hospital received two dead NTC fighters and 23 wounded on Thursday. One of those killed had been hit while taking food up to the fighters on the front line, doctors said.
Fear of Reprisals
One NTC commander said Gaddafi's forces were no longer using heavier weapons and appeared to have lost their cohesion.
"We've noticed now they are fighting every man for himself," said Baloun al-Sharie, a field commander. "We tried to tell them it's enough and to give themselves up, but they would not."
NTC officers say Gaddafi loyalists fear reprisals if they surrender -- some captured fighters have been roughed up.
Amnesty International issued a report on Wednesday saying Libya's new rulers were in danger of repeating human rights abuses commonplace under Gaddafi. The NTC said it would look into the report.
NTC forces found 25 corpses wrapped in plastic sheets near the Sirte battle zone on Wednesday. They accused Gaddafi militias of carrying out execution-style killings. Five corpses shown to a Reuters team wore civilian clothes, had their hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds to the head.
Although the battle for Libya is not quite over, the new government and its NATO backers who helped topple Gaddafi are looking toward a return to normality.
The NTC and the Western military alliance signed an agreement on Thursday to immediately open air corridors for international civilian flights from Benghazi, and domestic flights between the second city and Tripoli and Misrata.
This is a first step toward NATO lifting its no-fly zone over Libya imposed after Gaddafi began a military assault on civilians protesting his one-man rule.
[Source: By Rania El Gamal and Tim Gaynor, Reuters, Sirte, 14Oct11]
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