Forces attack Gaddafi stronghold Sirte as end of civil war approaches

Forces loyal to Libya's new rulers had last night taken control of large areas of Sirte as they edged closer to being able to announce the end of the country's bitter civil war.

"It's near. I can't say how many days but it's near now," said Ahmed Sala, one of the commanders on the eastern side of the city, as his men stormed forward, planting the black, green and red rebel tricolour on rooftops as they took new ground.

Street battles raged around high-rise buildings in the centre of the city as a force of around 15,000 fighters battled Col Muammar Gaddafi's remaining supporters. The revolutionary forces have captured Ouagadougou, the showpiece conference centre where Gaddafi signed the African Union treaty and hosted visiting foreign leaders. They are also in control of Ibo Sir hospital in the south of the city.

When Sirte falls, the revolutionaries' temporary governing body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), has said it will announce an interim government and call elections to be held in eight months. But around eight square miles of high-rise buildings at the residential heart of the city remained under loyalist control yesterday and the fighters of the NTC, who began a major offensive on this loyalist bastion on Friday morning, were suffering heavy casualties.

Around 6,000 men from Misrata were grouped in the west of the city and more than 10,000 fighters from eastern cities are on the other side. The NTC forces were pushing in at five different points around the Sirte while tightening a defensive perimeter around it.

Holed up in the residential buildings at the heart of the city were the fallen regime's loyalists, who continued to resist the NTC assault. Key figures, including Gaddafi's son, Mutassim, were said to be among those holding out in the city. Rebel commanders who intercepted the loyalists' radio communications, claim to have heard his voice as he directs the resistance.

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